Sergei Rachmaninov

Biography

Born: Apr 1, 1873; Russia   Died: Mar 28, 1943; USA   Period: 20th Century
Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninov, born in Semyonovo, Russia, on April 1, 1873, is today remembered as one of the most formidable pianists of all time and the last truly great composer in the Russian Romantic tradition. Rachmaninov came from a music-loving, land-owning family; young Sergey's mother fostered the boy's innate talent by giving him his first piano lessons. After a decline in the family fortunes, the Rachmaninovs moved to St. Petersburg, Read more where Sergei studied with Vladimir Delyansky at the Conservatory. As his star continued to rise, Sergei went to the Moscow Conservatory, where he received a sound musical training: piano lessons from the strict disciplinarian Nikolay Zverev and Alexander Siloti (Rachmaninov's cousin), counterpoint with Taneyev, and harmony with Arensky. During his time at the Conservatory, Rachmaninov boarded with Zverev, whose weekly musical Sundays provided the young musician the valuable opportunity to make important contacts and to hear a wide variety of music.
As Rachmaninov's conservatory studies continued, his burgeoning talent came into full flower; he received the personal encouragement of Tchaikovsky, and, a year after earning a degree in piano, took the Conservatory's gold medal in composition for his opera Aleko (1892). Early setbacks in his compositional career -- particularly, the dismal reception of his Symphony No. 1 (1895) -- led to an extended period of depression and self-doubt, which he overcame with the aid of hypnosis. With the resounding success of his Piano Concerto No. 2 (1900-1901), however, his lasting fame as a composer was assured. The first decade of the twentieth century proved a productive and happy one for Rachmaninov, who during that time produced such masterpieces as the Symphony No. 2 (1907), the tone poem Isle of the Dead (1907), and the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909). On May 12, 1902, the composer married his cousin, Natalya Satina.
By the end of the decade, Rachmaninov had embarked on his first American tour, which cemented his fame and popularity in the United States. He continued to make his home in Russia but left permanently following the Revolution in 1917; he thereafter lived in Switzerland and the United States between extensive European and American tours. While his tours included conducting engagements (he was twice offered, and twice refused, leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), it was his astounding pianistic abilities which won him his greatest glory. Rachmaninov was possessed of a keyboard technique marked by precision, clarity, and a singular legato sense. Indeed, the pianist's hands became the stuff of legend. He had an enormous span -- he could, with his left hand, play the chord C-E flat-G-C-G -- and his playing had a characteristic power, which pianists have described as "cosmic" and "overwhelming." He is, for example, credited with the uncanny ability to discern, and articulate profound, mysterious movements in a musical composition which usually remain undetected by the superficial perception of rhythmic structures.
Fortunately for posterity, Rachmaninov recorded much of his own music, including the four piano concerti and what is perhaps his most beloved work, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934). He became an American citizen a few weeks before his death in Beverly Hills, CA, on March 28, 1943. Read less
Rachmaninov: The Complete Works
Release Date: 09/23/2014   Label: Decca  
Catalog: 002145102   Number of Discs: 32
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Rachmaninov: Complete Symphonies & Piano Concertos
Release Date: 10/14/2014   Label: Deutsche Grammophon  
Catalog: 002155902   Number of Discs: 1
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Rachmaninov: Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
Release Date: 10/15/1996   Label: Nimbus  
Catalog: 5497/98   Number of Discs: 2
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Wolf, Strauss, Rachmaninov, Ives, Weill / Dawn Upshaw, Margo Garrett
Release Date: 03/10/2009   Label: Nimbus  
Catalog: 2521   Number of Discs: 1
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Chausson, Debussy & Rachmaninov Piano Trios
Release Date: 02/14/2012   Label: Nimbus  
Catalog: 6159   Number of Discs: 2
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Work: Symphony no 1 in D minor, Op. 13

 

About This Work
The history of Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 1 is almost as notable as the music itself. The 1897 premiere was a complete fiasco, poorly conducted by Glazunov and miserably received. "If there were a Conservatory in Hell," wrote César Read more Cui, "Rachmaninov would certainly gain first prize for his symphony, so devilish are the discords he has dished up before us." Rachmaninov's reaction, beyond a nervous collapse, was to disown the work. However, the orchestral parts from that same premiere turned up after World War II, and the Symphony was revived as something of a historical curiosity.

Though far from the composer's best work -- he was but 23, and in the earliest stages of his career, at the time of its composition -- the Symphony is far from the unqualified failure suggested by its initial reception. It is, instead, a large, ambitious work that attempts to expand the bounds of the Russian symphony beyond the works of Tchaikovsky by incorporating music of the Russian Orthodox church.

The Symphony opens with a brief, introductory swirling motif that will signify Fate throughout the work. The first movement proper, Allegro ma non troppo, is an expression of storm and struggle, with climaxes that suggest the clangor of bells. Though dark and troubled, the Scherzo, marked Allegro animato, is colored with flashes of fantasy. The Larghetto is a poem in which love is overshadowed by the menace of the middle section. The "Fate" motive explodes at the beginning of the last movement, Allegro con fuoco, followed by a blazing fanfare that leads to another dramatic life-and-death struggle. At the end of the Symphony, the "Fate" figure hammers down again and again, obliterating all that has come before it.

-- Sol Louis Siegel Read less

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