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The Last Romantic

MSO returns to Rachmaninoff

Oct. 4, 2010
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A contemporary of such “revolutionary” figures as Scriabin, Schoenberg, Ravel and Ives, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) never questioned the validity of the late Romantic tradition he inherited from Tchaikovsky, Rubinstein and Rimsky-Korsakov. But his eschewal of impressionism, atonality and all the other “modern” trends in music made him something of an anachronism late in life. Nevertheless, the fact is his music has largely eclipsed that of the modernists who once ruled the day, and is so widely popular as to make all-Rachmaninoff concerts not only possible but also highly anticipated. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra had one such event sell out last season; thus it’s no surprise they have an encore this season.

The Isle of the Dead
, Op. 29 (1909) is a rare tone-poem inspired by a painting by Swiss artist Arnold Bcklin (1827-1901) depicting a mysterious-looking rocky island with a tomb-like structure, surrounded by dark, still water, and being approached by a coffin-bearing boat. Rachmaninoff provides an evocative soundtrack to the painting, haunted throughout by the 13th-century plainchant Dies irae.

Quite opposite in mood is the bright and lovely Vocalise, the last of the Fourteen Songs, Op. 34 (1912). It’s a miniature gem consisting of a constant stream of wordless melody that has long since been a romantic favorite and found in numerous arrangements.

Like many composers, Rachmaninoff’s career had its ups and downs, but one immediate and lasting “up” came in 1934 with the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 for Piano and Orchestra. The eponymous theme is one of the 24 Caprices by Nicol Paganini (1782-1840)—one that also attracted the attention of Schumann, Liszt, Brahms and Lutoslawski. It is, indeed, ideal for variation, consisting of simple harmony and a memorable melody. To even the most casual classical music listener, the 18th Variation (Andante cantabile) should be instantly recognizable.

In 1939 Rachmaninoff joined many artists and left Europe (World War II started that September), sailing to the United States and settling on Long Island. It is there that he composed his last work: the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, which was completed and premiered the following year. The first dance has a central section with one of those great Rachmaninoff melodies. The second dance enters with a broad, new theme—an obscure self-quotation from his First Symphony, unheard since its debut some 43 years earlier. The turbulent third dance consists of a symphonic battle between a chant from Russian Orthodox liturgy (used previously in his 1915 Vespers) and the aforementioned Dies irae theme, which at long last is vanquished. In a particularly poignant touch, at the moment in the original score where the Dies irae is finally crushed, Rachmaninoff wrote the single word: “Alleluia.”

All of these works will be performed by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under Edo de Waart (joined by pianist Joyce Yang for Opuses 43 and 45) on Oct. 8-10 at Uihlein Hall.


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