Record Review: Rachmaninov Symphonies and Orchestral Music - Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Recorded between 2008-2015, this comprehensive four disc box set is a brilliant way to explore some of Rachmaninov’s lesser known works, such as his Scherzo in D minor, completed just days before his 15th birthday, as well as his indomitable Symphonies and Symphonic Dances. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra perform beautifully, and Lan Shui’s control of the orchestra and interpretation of the music is commendable. The recording, too, is something really special. Pressed on SACDs, a compact disc storage designed in 1999 by Sony and Phillips that can hold 4.7GB of data rather than the 700MB of a traditional CD, you are able to access the almost transcendental experience of hearing a full orchestra and relax into audiophile heaven. I should add, SACDs are usually only playable on a dedicated SACD player, however these recordings are on hybrid-SACD discs, so if you play them on a regular CD player you can still listen to the CD quality recording. Because the performances are all so spectacular, I believe it is in fact more pertinent to discuss and explore the background to Sergei Rachmaninov and the history behind some of his compositions rather than critique the musicianship of the orchestra. This, I think, will enhance your enjoyment of the recordings in this set far more than a traditional record review could ever do. 


While most famous for being one of the 20th century’s leading pianists, Rachmaninov’s musical character and unique compositional style is, for me at least, most prevalent in his orchestral works. Rachmaninov had a turbulent childhood, growing up in late 19th Century Russia in a wealthy aristocratic family and beginning formal piano lessons age four, then enduring life changing events such as losing both sisters to disease, his father leaving the family to pursue a bachelor’s lifestyle in Moscow, moving to a small flat in St Petersburg with his mother, failing his academic education and his only option being a purely musical education at the Moscow Conservatory under the tutelage of Nikolai Zverev. Rachmaninov remained at the Moscow Conservatory until 1894, studying piano, counterpoint, and free composition. His Russian heritage and influence of contemporaries such as Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov are obvious in his early works, however after graduating the conservatory and exploring his own interests further, he gradually developed his personal style featuring opulent orchestral colours, gorgeous Romantic melodies and passionately driven emotions. There is no medium more powerful than a full orchestra to truly bring emotions to life, and the combination of Rachmaninov’s deeply moving thematic material drawing from his unusual life experiences, and his skill as a composer means this music is some of the most engaging and thought provoking orchestral repertoire to be found. 


Rachmaninov’s music has often been criticised as overly gloomy, macabre even, with his use of a recurring four note phrase in multiple pieces being the first four notes of the Dires irae plainchant, signifying death. In fact, the four note figure heard in so many of Rachmaninov’s pieces is only brought to a close in the third and final movement of his Symphonic Dances, the last piece written by Rachmaninov before his death. While Rachmaninov himself was famously fascinated by, obsessed with, and feared death, labelling his music as gloomy ignores and overlooks the fact that this is an example of thematic material being used on a broader scale than ever seen before. The four note phrase, hinting at the fragility of life and the inescapability of death, intertwined with Rachmaninov’s ever poignant orchestration is a fascinating compositional feature which this four disc set helps to bring to light. 


The range of works included within this box set offers new listeners an incredible opportunity to experience Rachmaninov over his entire compositional and musical journey, starting with his earliest surviving orchestral work, the Scherzo in D minor, which is track 7 of disc 4 in this set. Written when he was just fourteen and studying at the Moscow academy this noticeably textbook composition without much personal character, though played flawlessly by the SSO I should add, provides a starting point from which to hear Rachmaninov grow. Another notable work featured on this set is his first Symphony in D minor, composed in 1985 and not only a landmark moment for any composer, but to Rachmaninov in particular this was meant to surpass all his previous achievements. This symphony performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lan Shui sounds phenomenal, especially on the SACD and Primare SACD player I am currently listening to it on, and it might be my favourite of all the pieces featured. The liturgical influences from Rachmaninov’s time spent with his maternal grandmother in the Russian Orthodox Church and the contrasted Russian gypsy inflections are beautifully interpreted, and the ominous four note figure that begins every movement is clearly audible. However, as easy as it is to relax into enjoying the symphony on this particular recording, the poorly rehearsed and conducted premiere performance in 1897 turned into one of classical music’s most notorious disasters. Rachmaninov supposedly couldn’t even recognise his own music as he cowered outside the music hall, while the all-powerful critics shunned the composer rather than the orchestra! With his self-confidence in tatters, he fell into a four year depression, unable to compose anything until his second Piano Concerto in 1901. The symphony’s sheet music was forgotten when Rachmaninov left Russia in 1918, and not found or performed again until 1944 when the subsequent performance brought to light firstly the brilliance of the composition, and secondly that its traumatic reception meant no further compositions by Rachmaninov were as emotionally vulnerable or expressive. 


I cannot possibly comment on every single track of all four discs in this set without writing a small book, however after listening through all of them I can confirm I am yearning to listen to it again. Discovering works by Rachmaninov that I hadn’t heard before, as well as listening to firm favourites performed by such a formidable orchestra, recorded in glorious hi-res and pressed on the unusual but remarkable technology that is an SACD means this set is going to hold a special place in my collection. 


Available from many online music stores as well as most streaming services.

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