Dreamy Rachmaninov

It is hard to believe, but the prospects for the future popularity of Sergei Rachmaninov’s music as expressed by critics of the day were about as on the mark as a renowned weather forecaster in October 1987.

In the late ’70s, I recall reading, with growing anger, an article in the FT, confidently asserting that my young hero, the much lamented Seve Ballesteros, was a flash-in-the-pan talent which wouldn’t stand the test of time.

I don’t understand why people make such predictions. You rarely look clever. I think someone once assured us that television would never catch on.

Rachmaninov’s life, 1874-1943, spanned tumultuous times in world history. He detested the Soviet regime and took his family to Europe and then the USA. Despite the huge success of his 2nd Piano Concerto, probably now the most popular in the entire repertoire, he was plagued by a lifelong low self esteem across all his gifts of composing, conducting, and performing.

As a pianist, few, if indeed any, have come close to his mastery and obsession for accuracy. He had enormous hands which could cover a twelve note spread, an inevitable consequence being the inability of many with smaller paws to play his music at all.

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He was a bit of a scowler (I challenge you to find a single decent picture of him with a smile).

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He would barely move at the keyboard, not unlike Horowitz, to whom he paid the ultimate compliment that he played his 3rd Piano Concerto better than the composer himself.

Nowadays we associate Rachmaninov with big sweeping tunes, very much in the romantic, nostalgic, vein of Tchaikovsky (one of his outspoken supporters). His 2nd and 3rd piano concertos have been immortalized in different ways in the films ‘Brief Encounter and ‘Shine‘.  If he were alive today, I am certain he’d be giving John Williams some stiff competition.

It is a wonder he went on to compose a second symphony after the disastrous first performance of his first, not helped by a conductor who’d let alcohol get the better of him. But the second, first performed  – perhaps as a safeguard – by the composer himself,  was an instant success and it is the third movement which forms my offering today.

Allow me to make a plea with you. If you don’t have time to listen to this now, save it for another day: if you’ve never heard it, it is some of the best reflective music you could ever wallow in; and if you do know it, you are unlikely to have heard many better renditions. An orchestra is a whole, made up of talented individuals – and the individual talents here are as good as it gets. Switch everything else off, close your eyes and reminisce.





10 thoughts on “Dreamy Rachmaninov”

  1. What a way to start the day; more to the point, what a way to start my week. I’ve heard that piece many times before but never like that. The clarinetist’s intonation was so smooth and mellifluous; don’t think it’ll be the only time I listen to that over the next several days. Thank you. Xx

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Nick, this has been my favourite symphony since I was a young man in the late ’70s. Only Bruckner has come close. Because it is my favourite symphony, I only listen to it once every couple of years or so. That way, it never palls. So seeing your ringing endorsement of this particular performance, I reluctantly exposed myself to this movement again (I’m sure I’ve listened to it in the last year!) to see if it could do what no other performance I’ve heard has managed to do: better Previn’s early ’70s recording with the LSO. My verdict: it doesn’t (for me), but, my Heavens, it comes close. Actually, the particular balancing of the instruments gives it quite a unique sound. Very beautiful, with a recording that is even better than the sumptuous sound that EMI gave Previn. But I agree: what a lovely, luscious performance under Jensen (whom I’ve never heard of until now!). Expansive, expressive, emotional. My only quibble would be that I feel he came to the first of the two great climaxes a little too soon. Under Previn, it seems to take longer–there’s no sense of hurry–so that when the climax finally arrives, it is so fulfilling. By the way, there’s a particular chord–it occurs at 11.44 in the Jensen recording–that no one makes sound as gorgeous as Previn does. Jensen, however,comes close to giving me the same feeling with that chord. It’s subjective, of course. With Previn’s shadow always present, I’ve never listened to any other more than once or twice. Jensen will be an exception, and I certainly want to hear what he does with the other three movements. Thank you so much for posting this, Nick.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Bernard, for these very incisive comments. You have nudged me into listening to it again, and the Previn version – and I can see exactly what you mean. AP is more paced and the big moments are huge. But I’m glad that Jensen comes a close second for you, it has a wonderful richness to it and the woodwind are superb.
      Completely with you on not playing favourite pieces too often – I try very hard to pace myself with Szell’s recording of Schubert’s Great C…but every couple of years would be far too testing for me!
      Very grateful for your fulsome feedback, thank you.


      1. Whoops! I must have been tired: I was thinking of Böhm’s recording of the Schubert, not Szell’s (which I’m not familiar with). I’ll be interested to hear it.


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