Monday, October 15, 2012

Rachmaninoff Reigns

On hearing it Live ...

One of the wonderful things about classical music is the way you can develop a personal history with a piece over the course of a lifetime. Last week I filled in another blank in my live performances by taking in Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony on the stage at the University of Miami's Gusman Concert Hall. Guest conductor Leon Fleisher led the Frost Symphony Orchestra in a spirited rendition of this soaring work which has been a lifelong favorite of mine.

It all goes back to one of the first recordings in my collection, a handed-down copy from my father which believe it or not was on 78 rpm records. For those to whom this is too antediluvian a technology to even imagine, let me just say that back before 33 rpm and the invention of vinyl put the "LP" (Long Playing) in "records," we had to struggle with thick heavy platters that spun twice as fast and contained a maximum of about 4 or 5 minutes per 10-inch side. And they were constructed from a more primitive form of plastic that was brittle enough to break. The needles that gouged out the grooves of these beasts resembled small nails and went dull at an alarming rate.

But worst of all, for those who wanted to enjoy classical performances, the limited playing time meant that we could never hear even an entire movement, let alone a complete symphony, without changing the disc multiple times. Lengthy works came on a collection of disks packaged in book-like "albums," which is why we still use that word to refer to a collection of pop songs. If there was no suitable pause in the music to end one disk and start the next, the orchestra had to create one while making the recording. Thus my first encounter with this Rachmaninoff symphony contained a series of scheduled interruptions that became so ingrained in my memory that I can still tell you where some of them happened to fall.

In spite of this, the music was so incredible that it quickly became one of my favorites. Once I began acquiring my own recordings I replaced the 78 version with a Hi-Fi (not Stereo, which cost a dollar more) LP with Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Symphony. Imagine my disappointment when I rushed home with this lucky find only to discover that it was badly warped. Again, for the uninitiated, the vinyl used to warp if it got hot or bent in a disorderly stack. If you were lucky it would still play, but with an obvious distortion of the sound. My new Rachmaninoff warp was so severe that I had to increase the weight of my tone arm to keep it from jumping off the record completely.

Why not return it, you may well ask? A number of reasons. That would have involved going back to the store, which was difficult for a kid without a car, and then convincing the sales person that 1) the record really did come out of the sleeve that way, 2) I had not left it locked up in the sun in a hot car, and 3) I had not leaned it the wrong way on a book shelf. But the real reason was that I knew I had just bought the only copy they had. This was before the days of browsing for anything you wanted online, and we settled for whatever the store might happen to have in its bins on a particular day. I might get my five hard-earned dollars back, but I'd come home without the music. So I kept it. I learned to overlook the horrible wavering that afflicted the first few minutes of both sides, the first and third movements, and to revel in the beauty of the remainder.

Naturally once CDs came along I had to buy another recording. This one is by Andre Previn with the San Francisco Symphony, and of course benefits from the advances in technology that have made us accustomed to flawless playback, perfect acoustics, wide dynamic range, and absolutely none of the pops, clicks, and hisses that we used to live with. And NO WARPS. Sure, you can damage CDs too, but you do copy them to your hard drive first, don't you?

The Previn recording came with a wonderful story. He performed it with the same orchestra on a trip to Moscow back when it was still the capital of the Soviet Union. Kind of nervy, performing the music of an expatriate Russian right in their faces. Not only that, but Previn made a point of performing the unedited version, without the cuts that used to be made to shorten it from nearly an hour to a more comfortable 40 minutes. After the concert, one man from the audience came up to him to say, "THANK YOU for the Rachmaninoff!" So we know at least one person got it.

All these years later, I finally got my chance to hear it performed in person. Leon Fleisher is the pianist who famously lost the use of his right hand, turned to conducting and commissioning works for the left hand alone, then miraculously recovered the use of the hand after many years, and earned an award for his debut comeback album, titled Two Hands. Now 83, he's still going strong, and still conducting. I don't know what it's like to work under him, but his relationship with the Frost ensemble appeared humble and loving. He must certainly be the kind of guy you'd try to do your best for, and that was the case this night. Despite some trepidation in the French horns, the soaring strings and gutsy brass, aided and abetted by the rest of the winds and a four-person percussion section, brought the work to fiery life.

There's the first movement that begins in murky darkness and builds to towering crescendos. Then the scherzo-like second movement with its fugal busyness, played at a rapid clip under Fleisher. Then the lyrical slow movement with a theme so song-like that I heard one woman actually singing it on the way out. Then finally the last movement that begins at a run and never lets up -- save briefly, when quoting that lyrical theme from the third -- until it pounds to a cataclysmic conclusion. Breathless! You gotta hear it!

[In this earlier blog post I wrote about Rachmaninoff's other symphonies, and how the Second has recently been transformed into a Fifth Piano Concerto.]