Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Etudes-Tableaux, Vocalise (CD review)

Eiji Oue, Minnesota Orchestra.  Reference Recordings RR-96CD.

When Reference Recordings made this album in 2001, I remember it surprised me somewhat because I thought as they were an audiophile label they were quite well aware of Andre Previn's celebrated analogue recording of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances.  I wondered why they would want to compete against a recording that most audiophiles would already have in their collections.  Unless, of course, they thought their own version would be superior in performance and/or sound.

I shouldn't have questioned their reasoning.  Conductor Eiji Oue's interpretation is neither inferior nor superior to Previn's but, rather, a complement to it.  Where Previn emphasizes the "dance" qualities of the work, the sweet, light, lyrical aspects, Oue is more interested in the "symphonic" elements.  That is, his reading is grander, more imposing than Previn's, with more accentuation on the strong, powerful factors in the music.

The three-movement Symphonic Dances was Rachmaninoff's final composition, premiered in 1941, just a couple of years before his death.  Rachmaninoff's friend, choreographer Mikhail Fokine, told him that above all the music should have vitality and character.  Certainly, it has that in spades, whether the conductor is stressing the lyrical dance components or the purely symphonic ones as Oue does.  Vitality is Oue's strong suit, especially in the big opening movement and the even bigger closing segment.  In between, there is the Andante, a slightly eerie, sometimes demonic, sometimes sweet waltz, which Oue also brings off well, with plenty of "character."  The final movement is massive in scope, battering the door for a quarter of an hour with only momentary hushes.

Filling out the disc is, first, the little Vocalise, originally a composition for wordless voice and piano that Rachmaninoff wrote in 1912 and later transcribed for orchestra, the version we have here.  It's a lovely work, not quickly forgotten, which Oue takes perhaps a bit too literally, diminishing some of its grace and beauty.

Closing the program are the composer's five Etudes-Tableaux, piano pieces that Rachmaninoff wrote in 1911 and 1917, here transcribed for orchestra by Ottorino Respighi, he of Pines, Fountains, and Festivals of Rome fame.  Respighi was obviously no stranger to evocative tone poems, and he asked Rachmaninoff for descriptions of the music.  It does not appear that Rachmaninoff was too keen on the idea of pictorial music and at first hesitated; but eventually he said the five works represented "The Sea and Seagulls," "The Fair," a "Funeral March," "Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf," and an oriental "March."  Well, OK.  The last three pieces do, indeed, sound like the descriptions the composer gave for them, although there is little in the first two pieces to justify the titles.  I suspect the composer simply made up some of the descriptions on the spur of the moment to satisfy Respighi's request.  In any case, the melodies are quite colorful, charming, and exciting by turns.

Just as stunning as the music is Reference Recordings' sound.  This is true demonstration fare, starting with the wide dynamic range and strong dynamic impact and proceeding to the excellent orchestral depth, the room-filling ambiance, the natural-sounding midrange, the sparkling highs, and the thundering lows.  This is master-tape audio, full, effulgent, resplendent, a little thick and not entirely transparent but realistic in the extreme.  Bravo!


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa