Rachmaninov in St. Louis: the Complete Vox Box Recordings

Leonard Slatkin Conducting Rachmaninov 
When I first started collecting classical music in the early 90’s, I caught the Rachmaninov bug: a piece called The Isle of the Dead enraptured my heavy-metal heart and never let go.  It was darker, more intense, and more exciting than any piece of music I had ever heard—and there was so much of it: 20 minutes of brooding, spine-tingling music!  Not even Iron Maiden could match that!  :) I quickly began investigating everything Rachmaninov wrote, though in the early days of CD, there really wasn’t much available other than two of his three symphonies, the piano concertos, and a handful of piano music.  Until one day I stumbled on a chunky three-disc set of Rachmaninov’s Orchestral Works performed by Leonard Slatkin (a new name to me back then) and the St. Louis Symphony.  Vox Box recordings exciting in those early days, since each one had anywhere from two to four discs, but were economically priced and contained a thick, detailed booklet inside with a wealth of information about the composer and the works included.  This set introduced me to works I had never heard of, many of which still remain rarities.  Besides the relatively familiar Symphonic Dances, Isle of the Dead, and Vocalise, Slatkin included works which really stretched my understanding of Rachmaninov’s orchestral language: the epic, powerful choral symphony, The Bells, which should really have been called his Symphony No.3, the creepy, Mussorgskyian choral piece Spring, the uber-Romantic, Rimsky-Korsakovian tone poem, Prince Rostislav, and an Tchaikovskyian overture, the Caprice Boheme (Capriccio on Gypsy Themes), among others.  Where had these works been, and why did no one else seem to bother with them?  For despite the derivative nature of some of the earlier works, I heard masterpiece after masterpiece, any one of which could have been a concert-hall staple. 

What captivated me was how much energy and Russian spirit Slatkin seemed to infuse in these works, particularly as they were so unknown.  He seemed to really care about them, like a teacher who really wanted his students to appreciate a work that otherwise seemed doomed to oblivion.  The sound, too, hardly seemed dated, though the recordings were from the late 70’s.  Some Vox Box collections, admittedly, feature third-rate orchestras recorded underwater (or on a submarine?) with inferior equipment.  This one, by comparison, glowed with orchestral fire and seemed a cut above every other Vox recording I owned, comparing favorably even to the higher-priced Ashkenazy recordings of The Isle of the Dead and the Symphonic Dances.  It quickly became a treasured recording that I made copies of (tapes, back then) for my friends until the CDs became too scratched and worn out to play any longer.  I put them aside and sought out other versions which soon replaced my time-worn Slatkin recordings.  Indeed, I even fooled myself into believing that the Slatkin versions weren’t all that good, and were only ‘intro’ recordings leading to Ashkenazy, Jarvi, Pletenev, and so forth. 

A chance to reassess Slatkin’s overview came at just the right time: Amazon has issued all the St. Louis recordings: the orchestral works, the symphonies, and the piano concertos for—gasp!—99 cents.  They’ve done this before with the Vox Box Mozart Symphonies (which were raw and a bit average), and Abravanel’s complete Mahler cycle (which has its ups and downs).  But this...this was the bargain of all bargains, high quality music played by a first-rate orchestra and a talented conductor, and for an absurdly low price.  So naturally I bought it and played through the entire set over and over again, weighing it against the versions I had accumulated since.  I’m happy to say that Slatkin’s cycle stands up with the best: though some individual pieces have better interpretations, none of these will disappoint, and for the neophyte to Rachmaninov’s symphonies and concertos, I would confidently call this Rachmaninov 101.  Below are a few highlights and comments about the set without being exhaustive: after all, there’s really no reason not to recommend it at this price, so whether it’s good or not scarcely matters.  However, it is good, very good indeed, and in some cases the best Rachmaninov you are likely to hear set down on disc. 

The Orchestral Rarities: Caprice Boheme, Prince Rostislav, and the Youth Symphony
One of my guilty pleasures in the Rachmaninov canon is his Op.12, the so-called Capriccio on Gypsy Themes, also known as the Caprice Boheme.  I say “guilty” because Rachmaninov himself disowned the piece (saying it “terrified” him), and Patrick Piggott, writing in the BBC Music Guide of Rachmaninov’s Orchestral Music, claimed it “was written too hurriedly...the themes are not particularly striking in themselves...and their treatment is rather conventional” (14).  Sure, maybe, perhaps, but oh how I love that piece—the slow dramatic opening, and then the glittering, balletic introduction which subsides to a gloomy funeral procession. Over the years I collected other versions of the piece only to convince myself that, yes, the piece was a little rough—not a worthy piece of the Rachmaninov canon.  But when Slatkin played it, I heard shades of the First Symphony, the Isle of the Dead, and even his greatest orchestral work, the Symphonic Dances.  It’s a bit derivative, in the sense that Rachmaninov is consciously trying to compose a piece in the same vein as Tchaikovsky’s Capricio Italien.  Yet without sounding entirely blasphemous, I think he manages to be derivative while equaling the source of his inspiration.  It’s a fabulous piece, beautifully orchestrated, with that trademark Rachmaninov melancholy as well as his less well-known manic energy (that we see more in his last work, the Symphonic Dances).  Echoes of this work also crop up in the finale of the famous Second Symphony, as well as some of the piano concertos.  For all his dourness, Rachmaninov could express gaiety and outright joy—he just rarely chose to. 

Another great little piece, all-but-forgotten, is his nationalist tone poem, Prince Rostislav.  It takes a page from Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakriev, sounding at times like a crib from the former’s tone poem, Sadko.  Yet again, what saves a derivative piece is the melodies: the main melody is so hauntingly beautiful that you almost wished he saved it for the First Piano Concerto (written soon thereafter).  It spirit it resembles his slightly more famous tone poem, The Rock, though it’s just as captivating and reminds you that Rachmaninov started composing when many of the ‘Might Five’ were still composing themselves.   Then we have his aborted first symphony, which only survives in one movement with the appropriate title, Youth Symphony.  It’s resembles what he would later do with the opening of the First Symphony, as it has the same tone and funeral darkness…yet it opens quietly, with a yearning motive similar to that of Prince Rostislav.  It’s not developed or varied enough to be the first movement of a symphony, perhaps, but it’s an astonishing piece of writing, again brimming over with trademark melodies.  A great find and well played as always by Slatkin and the St. Louis SO. 

The Choral Works: The Bells, Spring, Three Russian Songs
The Bells is fairly well-known, as it has been recorded numerous times since the 90’s, though it hasn’t completely made its way into the concert hall, and is not considered part of his complete symphonic output (sadly).  Based on the poem of the same name by Edgar Allen Poe, it’s an astonishing work which is the most quintessential Rachmaninov experience money can buy.  Rachmaninov wrote beautifully for chorus and soloists, and the melodies are among his very best.  The first movement is thrilling, a fast-paced sleigh ride (the “Silver Sleigh Bells”) with a gorgeous, slow motion moment toward the middle which recalls the most gorgeous moments of the Third Piano Concerto.  The slow movement highlights a soprano singing of “wedding bells,” and all is romance and moonlit contemplation.  A fiery scherzo follows, a side of Rachmaninov not often seen in his orchestral music though visible in some of the more tempestuous piano music.  The “alarm bells” are alarming indeed, blazing with blood and thunder—a work-out for a good stereo system.  Finally, we get the bells of death, which instead of being horrific, are gentle and restorative.  Though the piece begins sadly, mourning the approach of death, death comes as a friend offering consolation—not torment.  Not surprisingly, Rachmaninov considered this among his very best works.  Unfortunately, this version of the work is sung in English for some reason, which is a bit of a disappointment (despite fine singers).  The other choral works below are all in the original Russian, which is a bit jarring, but with such a good performance you get over it.  I might suggest buying another version to contrast this with, perhaps Dutoit's with the Philadelphia.  

We see slivers of this masterwork in the other two pieces, Spring and Three Russian SongsSpring was written in the creative renewal that brought about the Second Piano Concerto, Cello Sonata, and the Suite for Two Pianos No.2.  It’s a dark-hued work (not surprisingly), but grittier than you might expect for him; in fact, I find similarities here with Mussorgsky’s song cycles such as Songs and Dances of Death, or perhaps some of Rimsky’s more colorful operas.  It’s a tale of winter turning into spring, but it’s a long Russian winter and the poet is a man whose wife has betrayed him, and he broods over her infidelity as they are trapped together in the house.  Finally, spring breaks winter’s grasp and the lover finds forgiveness and decides not to kill her after all (for a moment, you think the murder has actually occurred as the chorus thunders to the skies along with the clangorous support of the orchestra).  By comparison, the Three Russian Songs are nostalgic tributes to folksong written at the end of his career, when Rachmaninov was living in exile in America, never again to return to his Russian home.  The first and second pieces ache with longing, yet are quite spare—a testament to the slimmer, more ‘modern’ style Rachmaninov adopted in his American years.  The third movement, a perky dance of infidelity is the most charming piece, and is full of unusual and characteristic orchestral touches. 

Everything Else: Symphonies & Concertos, etc.

The set also contains excellent versions of the three symphonies, any one of which would grace a serious collector’s shelves.  The First Symphony is a problematic work, highly dramatic but hard to bring off; Slatkin doesn’t make it seem like a masterpiece, so I would prefer Dutoit or Jansons here.  Yet the Second and Third are excellent and compare with the best.  So, too, with the Piano Concertos played by Abbey Simon, who makes each one glitter and shine.  I particularly admire his account of the Third Concerto, which is the longest and most difficult to pull off, yet it sounds remarkable here.  He’ll also make you rethink the unjustly neglected First and Fourth Concertos, which are hidden gems.  My only reservations in this set are the Symphonic Dances, which sound a bit weak, lacking the virile thrust and overpowering melody of the best versions, and The Isle of the Dead, which also seems to give up the ghost too quickly.  But these are minor quibbles in a set that pays for itself ten times over, and challenges our perception of Rachmaninov as a minor composer—or worse, an anachronism in modern music.  No, he was a master in any age, even in the highly competitive waters of the early 20th century which teemed with the big fish of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, etc.  Download this set and rejoice!  You can find the entire set here: http://www.amazon.com/Rachmaninoff-Complete-Symphonies-Concertos-Orchestral/dp/B00V63E05G/ref=pd_sim_dmusic_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=00BS7NCYZ5PNCWBZHRFN