Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Rest of Rachmaninoff

A while back in a piece called "The Rest of Tchaikovsky" I talked about filling in some of the gaping holes in my music collection with the help of eMusic. Well, I'm still at it, but this time I browsed the vacant aisles of one of our few remaining music stores armed with a Christmas gift card that was burning a hole in my pocket.

Poor old Specs Music. Originally "Specs Records," then belatedly and pointlessly renamed "Specs Records and Tapes" (remember tapes?), and now called "Specs Music" even though the old sign is still on the wall, it used to be my home away from home on weekends back when most of us still limited our music choices to what happened to be available in the bins. Back then only real hi-fi nerds bothered to place special orders for things they  had found in catalogs or in advertisements in magazines, and only they would pay the premium prices such service commanded. Over the years flipping through records changed to flipping through CD's, but now most of us are scrolling through screens instead.

To their credit, Specs has outlasted the mighty Virgin Music that moved into the mall down the street, and they have updated their browsing with digital scanners and earphones so you can instantly hear the disk in your hand without opening it. They even absorbed the competing used-CD store that opened right next door to them, and now offer used CD's in the same bins with new ones. If they wanted to rename themselves again, they could call it "Specs CD's, DVD's, and Video Games," but it probably would be for naught since consumers have moved on to MP3's and streaming media that don't require any shelf space. You are forced to the conclusion that Virgin closed first because they saw the writing on the wall first.

But I digress. The point of this is Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose complete three symphonies I acquired for a decent price on a 2-CD set. I've long been a fan of his Second Symphony, which is perhaps the single most beautiful concoction ever devised for a full orchestra to play. But I'd never become familiar with the First and Third, so these were new treats. I'm already on speaking terms with number 1, but number 3 is a bit stand-offish, with lots of percussive bluster, so it will take longer to get to know it.

It's been a great pleasure to explore Rachmaninoff again. The last of the 19th century Romantic school, he was an anachronism who lasted far into the 20th. But in many ways he surpassed those who went before, such as Tchaikovsky, his teacher and early influence whose untimely death came as a great shock to the young student. Besides extending the tonal and emotional range of music even further, if that was possible, he added his own prodigious abilities as a performer. His four piano concertos remain some of the most demanding yet lyrical in the repertoire, and it was his skill at the keyboard that enabled him to invent such dense and complex yet exceedingly melodic scores.

Moving from the music store back online to eMusic, I uncovered Vespers, also known as The All Night Vigil, Rachmaninoff's unique collection of pieces for a capella chorus. Rich in harmonic textures, with solo voices rising against the crowd, it references liturgical music from the Russian Orthodox Church, which must have held special nostalgia for the expatriate composer. Having left Russia after the 1918 revolution, he lived variously in Europe and the United States, where he died in 1943, in Beverly Hills of all places, temporarily in exile again from his favorite home in Switzerland.

These "new" works (to me) sent me back to listen to some of my other Rachmaninoff favorites -- the tone poem, Isle of the Dead, and the three Symphonic Dances, his last completed work. These are often recorded together, and taken that way they almost comprise a fourth symphony, with the Isle of the Dead forming a brooding first movement like a premonition of impending doom, including one of his many quotations of the 13th century Latin hymn called Dies Irae, or "days of wrath," that was all the rage during the Black Plague. This is a theme that would bind it together with the other movements to form a whole, since it appears yet again -- triumphantly this time -- in the last of the Dances.

Something else I intend to explore is a recent transcription of my old friend the Second Symphony into a new Fifth piano concerto. You can read here how Alexander Warenberg, a contemporary expatriate Russian pianist and composer, was commissioned to re-write the symphony to feature a piano, while boiling the four movements down to the concerto's traditional three. Love it or hate it, you can't deny it's an interesting experiment, and the music is fantastic either way. Rachmaninoff may be gone, but he's still giving us new material. 

Who says classical music is dead? Seems to me it's alive and thriving. Now, let me leave you humming this cadenza from the Third Piano Concerto:

1 comment:

  1. Michael Stevens10:52 PM

    So, to redigress back to your original digression, i too have the vividest memories of spec's, and, in fact not long ago i met and heard a speech by old mr spec himself! OK - it was a while ago, probably ~1996, because i was still a businessman, and belonged to an organizations called the "family business forum," and somehow the old man was our lunchtime speaker. He was accompanied by a very accomplished daughter, who would probably be in her 50s now. If the business is still in the family, i imagine she is running it.

    Anyway, he was a delightful speaker, full of stories about the old days in the music business. He was also a bit gaga, and ultimately his daughter had to give him the hook, but it stands out as one of the best things that ever happened at a family business forum meeting.

    After the speech i had a nice chat with him and shared my own memories of hanging around in his store. Eating pizza at santacroces, then going to specs, then seeing a movie at the Loews riviera theater - that amounted to the perfect evening for a south miamian of a certain age.

    The one record i can still remember buying there was the first bill cosby album....noah? Noah?!?!