Rachmaninov’s “Symphonic Dances”: Releasing Old Demons

There is a fascinating moment of emotional release near the end of the first movement of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.  Completed in 1940 and dedicated to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, this was Rachmaninov’s final composition. This music, which Rachmaninov described as “my last spark,” stands as an extraordinary musical summation. It reflects on the past with wistful nostalgia, yet we also get the sense of a spirited and joyful march into the sunset. In …

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Bach’s Unopened Résumé: Brandenburg Concerto No. 2

Right now, somewhere in the vast, interstellar expanse beyond the edge of our solar system, NASA’s Voyager 1 space probe, launched on September 5, 1977, continues to wander into the eternity of deep space. Onboard the small, brave craft is a Golden Record documenting the fragile existence of humanity on our pale blue dot in the cosmic sea. The opening musical track on the Golden Record is the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, performed by Karl Richter and the Munich …

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Rachmaninov’s First Symphony: From Despair to Posthumous Triumph

The world was not ready for Sergei Rachmaninov’s First Symphony. The disastrous premiere of Symphony No. 1 in D minor in St. Petersburg on March 28, 1897 shattered the 23-year-old composer’s confidence, plunging him into a psychological breakdown. For three years he would compose no music, emerging in the autumn of 1900 with the soaringly melodic Second Piano Concerto only after extensive psychotherapy. “Forgive me, but I do not find this music at all agreeable.” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov …

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Ravel in Triple Meter: “Valses nobles et sentimentales” and “La Valse”

As a composer, Maurice Ravel was drawn to the waltz. For example, consider the hazy serenity of the second movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, or (most famously) La valse, the composer’s haunting, dreamlike remembrance of the Viennese waltz, as heard through a perfumed French filter. Around 1920 while writing La valse, Ravel described his fascination with the waltz to the musicologist and writer Jean Marnold: You know my intense attraction to these wonderful rhythms and that I …

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George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra: Five Legendary Recordings

In music one must think with the heart and feel with the brain. -George Szell George Szell was music director of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1946 until his death in July, 1970. During that time, the Hungarian-born Jewish-American conductor transformed the orchestra on the industrial shores of Lake Erie into one of the world’s most esteemed ensembles. He created an orchestra with a distinct sound and style- a seamless blend of European warmth, …

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New Release: “Hilary Hahn Plays Bach”

Violinist Hilary Hahn released her first solo Bach album more than twenty years ago as a teenager. Now, she has returned to this music with a newly-released recording featuring Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor, Partita No. 1 in B minor, and Sonata No. 2 in A minor. Completed nearly 300 years ago, this sublime collection of Baroque dances stands at the center of the violin repertoire. Hahn’s conception of this music moves away …

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Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5: Horowitz at the Met, 1981

Let’s finish the week where we began, with a powerful live-concert recording of the legendary Russian-born American pianist, Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989). This performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5 concluded Horowitz’ November 1, 1981 recital at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Completed in 1901, the Prelude in G minor opens with the same kind of spirited march we hear in the opening movement of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Moments of soaring, heroic bravura are a reminder of …

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