Consummated in Exile

A new recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances conveys the breadth of the 20th-century composer’s life’s journey

Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1920 (Wikimedia Commons)
Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1920 (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1952, the Central Intelligence Agency covertly supported an unprecedented international arts festival lavish in cost and purpose: “Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century.” It took place in Paris over the course of a full month. The mastermind was Nicolas Nabokov, Secretary General of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, then the major instrument of American Cold War cultural propaganda.

Nabokov’s premise was that the United States had displaced Europe and Russia as the reigning home for the Western arts. And the 20th century’s presiding genius, for Nabokov, was his friend Igor Stravinsky, resident in Los Angeles (and, like Nabokov, living in self-imposed exile from his Russian homeland). Stravinsky dominated the repertoire for Nabokov’s myriad Paris festival performances. Nabokov’s concept was to celebrate “free artists”—cosmopolites liberated from parochial national schools and from the oppressive Soviet yoke. His larger claim—that only “free societies” produce great art—was the fundamental cultural premise of the CIA, State Department, and White House. (In my book The Propaganda of Freedom: JFK, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and the Cultural Cold War, I dub this counterfactual Cold War doctrine the “propaganda of freedom.”)

Nabokov’s favorite case in point was Dmitri Shostakovich. As a widely acknowledged expert on Soviet culture, he denigrated Shostakovich as a Soviet stooge (and named Vittorio Rieti and William Schuman composers of greater consequence). Of the hundreds of compositions programmed in Paris in 1952 (by the leading opera companies of Vienna and London, by the New York City Ballet, and by orchestras from Boston, West Berlin, Paris, Geneva, and Rome), Shostakovich was represented by a single piece: a suite from his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Nabokov chose it because this, notoriously, was the subversion—condemned by Pravda as “muddle instead of music”—that enraged Stalin and provoked a musical crackdown. Wholly unnoticed was that another Russian composer of consequence, like Stravinsky living in the United States, was not played at all. This was the late Sergei Rachmaninoff, written off as a hopeless anachronism.

Today, Nabokov is the anachronism. As I write in The Propaganda of Freedom, Stravinsky in Hollywood, cut off both from his Russian roots and his California surroundings, was “free not to matter.” Rachmaninoff, antithetically, remained Russian (he never mastered English) in his domestic and musical trappings. To support himself and his family, he became a touring concert pianist. His creative output plummeted. Had he died in his 50s, that would have been the story of his exile. But two late works—the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (composed in Switzerland in 1934) and the Symphonic Dances (composed in the U.S. in 1940, less than three years before his death)—changed everything. The first, an ingenious showpiece in which the influence of jazz syncopations is readily detectable, was instantly popular and has remained so. The second, Rachmaninoff’s final opus save for a Tchaikovsky transcription, has steadily grown in reputation as Stravinsky’s modernist moment recedes. Pace Nabokov, I would certainly call it a “Masterpiece of the Twentieth Century.”

Rachmaninoff was famously private. His severe crewcut and gimlet eyes disclosed little to the world at large. And yet the Symphonic Dances confides a searching personal valedictory. Its three movements—originally titled “Mid-day,” “Twilight,” and “Midnight”—are stations of life. The sublime coda to movement one pacifies the “vengeance” motto of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony—a naked autographical opus he had discarded 45 years earlier when its premiere proved a fiasco. So the Symphonic Dances puts these private demons to rest: a closing of the circle. Its finale incorporates a second self-quotation—the ninth movement of the liturgical AllNight Vigil, in which Christ’s resurrection is proclaimed.

Rachmaninoff left two versions of the Symphonic Dances: one for orchestra, the other for two pianos. He premiered the latter, privately, with Vladimir Horowitz. What that sounded like we can only guess. But he also inadvertently left a third version—which eventually became the biggest classical music find of recent decades.

Because Rachmaninoff refused to permit broadcasting or recording of his live performances, we only have his RCA recordings: studio jobs. But on December 21, 1940, the conductor Eugene Ormandy privately recorded Rachmaninoff playing through the Symphonic Dances in preparation for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s premiere performance the following month. This “third version” was released in 2018 as part of a three-CD Marston Records set titled Rachmaninoff Plays Symphonic Dances. As I wrote in a review for The Wall Street Journal: “The result is one of the most searing listening experiences in the history of recorded sound. … As privately imparted to Ormandy, Rachmaninoff’s impromptu solo-piano rendering … documents roaring cataracts of sound, massive chording, and pounding accents powered by a demonic thrust the likes of which no studio environment has ever fostered.” It equally registers a trembling undertow of memories faraway and yet omnipresent. This unprepared, off-the-cuff, 26-minute rendition of a 35-minute composition is also necessarily hit and miss, and full of gaps. It sets a towering bar; it documents a lost world. But it is incomplete.

Now we have another find: a seminal new Deutsche Grammophon recording of the two-piano version, by Sergei Babayan and Daniil Trifonov, that realizes in full the magnitude of Rachmaninoff’s musical leave-taking. Their performance is in no way a replica. At the very start, the march tempo is much faster than Rachmaninoff’s “non Allegro.” And the ripeness of Rachmaninoff’s reading, shading a final ritual of retrospection, is unrecapturable. The shadows with which he streaks the second-movement waltz are wholly his. And it is Rachmaninoff, traversing the finale’s central “Lento assai,” who discovers a graveyard wind conjuring intimations of heaven. Authentically rendered by Babayan and Trifonov, however, are Rachmaninoff’s magisterial fluidity of tempo and pulse, the heroic range of dynamics, the convulsive ebb and flow, seething and poignant, of an epic confessional. It is a validation overwhelming and unprecedented.

Rachmaninoff considered assigning the lyric second subject of movement one to Marian Anderson. He wound up with something almost as unusual: a solo alto saxophone. In Ormandy’s home, Rachmaninoff inhabits this sad tune with a range of color and expression no saxophone could duplicate: it is a piano master class. As scored for two pianos, this passage has always seemed to me makeshift, a transcription. But Babayan and Trifonov discover their own fullness of feeling here and make the spare texture sound essential. In fact, an elemental resonance informs the entire traversal.

When Babayan and Trifonov performed in New York City in March 2018, their mastery of the Romantic two-piano idiom was instantly apparent: they are a historic tandem. The program included the two Rachmaninoff suites. These are supreme studies in kaleidoscopic texture and sonority. (You can hear them, as well, on the new CD.) The Symphonic Dances is all that and more. Consummating a life’s journey, it culminates in a blaze of glory when a liturgical refulgence silences the “Dies irae.” Rachmaninoff’s private recording omits this humbling ending. But I cannot imagine a more ecstatic leave-taking than the tidal cadences with which Babayan and Trifonov cap their interpretation.

Rachmaninoff’s manuscript here bears the inscription: “Alleluya.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Joseph Horowitz is the author, most recently, of a novel, The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York, and of The Propaganda of Freedom: JFK, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and the Cultural Cold War. His articles for the Scholar include a review of Fiona Maddocks’s biography of Rachmaninoff and an essay on “ripeness” in musical performance. He writes about the arts on his blog, “Unanswered Question.”

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