April 12, 2021. Sergei Rachmaninoff considered The Philadelphia Orchestra his favorite American ensemble, and our Classical Album of the Week reveals why.
Under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, our fabulous Philadelphians offer the first and the final symphonic works of the Russian master (his First Symphony and his Symphonic Dances) with the flair, finesse, and fire that Rachmaninoff came to appreciate in his own frequent performances with the Orchestra, under its earlier music directors Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy.
The circumstances surrounding Rachmaninoff’s first and final orchestral works couldn’t have been more different. His First Symphony, written at age 22, just as he was graduating from the Moscow Conservatory, was such a disaster at its premiere that he called it “the most agonizing hour” of his life.
He fell into several years’ depression and writers’ block, which took intense psycho- and hypno-therapy to heal. He refused to show the symphony to anyone, and specified in his will that it should not see the light of day.
By contrast, nearly half a century later, the Symphonic Dances received two premieres. The premiere of the two-piano version was given by the composer and none other than Vladimir Horowitz at the 2nd piano. The orchestral premiere was given, unsurprisingly, by its dedicatee, The Philadelphia Orchestra, under Eugene Ormandy.
By this time, 1945, Rachmaninoff was a world-renowned concert pianist and composer, whose commercial, critical and public success was undisputed.
What surprises the listener, on close auditioning of both these works, is the common thread between the two. Under Yannick’s baton, and with its signature lush sound, The Philadelphia Orchestra powerfully defines a sense of drama, drive, suspense, and the sweeping lyrical lines that are Rachmaninoff’s forte, in both works. And in both works, Rachmaninoff’s distinct voice, and his unique sense of instrumental color is clearly heard—which is perhaps the hallmark of a great creative artist.
This is the first of three Rachmaninoff orchestral albums to be recorded by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra, and released by Deutsche Grammophon. We savor this first one, and eagerly await the next installment.