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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa