Rachmaninoff: Vocalise (CD review)

Various vocalists, conductors, and orchestras. RCA 09026-63669-2.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (or Rachmaninov) wrote fourteen songs in 1912, published as his Op. 34. The concluding song has no words; titled simply "Vocalise" it has come down to us as probably the best known piece in the set. While it has no really catchy melody, it possesses a hauntingly beautiful charm that has been interpreted and transcribed many times over for solo voice, solo instruments of every kind, chorus, and full orchestra.

So, some years ago RCA went through their archives pulling as many different versions as they could find and collected them on this disc. The result is not so much an album one might enjoy straight through as it is a disc from which to play favored choices. If your player has a memory chip for favorites, this is a CD to program permanently.

The selections range in recording date from 1929 through 1995, with no particular order except possibly the reissue producer's personal preference.

The disc begins with Anna Moffo's vocal rendition with the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski (1964). It is perhaps the highlight of the collection and deserves its number-one billing.

Anna Moffo
Among the purely orchestral versions, Rachmaninoff's own with the Philadelphia Orchestra carries the stamp of authority in spite of its early, 1929 sonics. Morton Gould's rendering with his own orchestra (1960) is the most dreamily romantic of the lot. Then we find Yuri Termirkanov's interpretation with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (1991) the best recorded.

Among solo instrumentalists, James Galway's flute transcription with Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic carries the day (1976). It is seductively airy and lilting. The Norman Luboff Choir do a big-scale production number (1961) of the piece. Next, Wolfram Huschke and Dieter Huschke perform an intimate cello and piano duet arrangement (1995), and Vladimir Spivakov and Sergei Bezrodny do a violin and piano arrangement (1991) that make nice contrasts.

Among the oddities are a lovely account of the score by countertenor Brian Asawa and a bizarre one by Isao Tomita and the Plasma Symphony Orchestra (1964) that sounds exactly as you would imagine. Evgeny Kissin plays a piano arrangement (1993), and Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin do a piano duet (1940).

The collection ends appropriately with a final solo voice, Ruth Ann Swenson, accompanied by Warren Jones on piano (1994).

Among purely orchestral versions I still prefer Previn (EMI) or Stokowski (EMI), but this unique array of realizations from RCA gives us some idea just how good Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise" actually is. If you can't find something to like here, you're maybe not a real music lover.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa