CD Stock Number: Reference Recordings HDCD RR-96CD
The featured composition on this outstanding recording is both a first and a last for Sergei Rachmaninoff. Beginning with the initial working title of Fantastic Dances, his Symphonic Dances was the first work he composed after moving to the United States in 1940. Unfortunately, it was also his last composition. I think it shares much with both his Third Symphony and my favorite of his compositions, the stunningly beautiful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. In the first movement there is a bit of a march theme and as it develops a tune is first played by a saxophone and later expanded by the strings. This was the first and, of course, only time Rachmaninoff used the saxophone in any composition. The well-known American composer Robert Russell Bennett was a technical advisor aiding in the integration of this "new" instrument into this score, and the result is extremely impressive and successful.
The second movement is noteworthy for the feeling of danceable music. More specifically it seems to almost be a waltz tempo and is introduced by the playing of an English horn, which also was featured in the first movement, over the violins. If you're not familiar with the English horn, it is definitely not related to the more famous and commonly used French horns. It is in the difficult-to-master double reed family; think of it as a baritone version of the oboe or as the smaller brother of the bassoon. The third and last movement of these dances has fragment hints from previous compositions including a liturgical chant and his beloved Dies Irae, which is also used in his famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. All builds to blazing glory of furiously dancing music. This outstanding composition ultimately turned out to be his last, but a sparkling unexpected final blast of brilliance. Some musicologists believe that he suspected this might be his final musical effort because of the following two things he noted in his original score. Rachmaninoff wrote the word Alliluya twenty-six bars before the end and at the close he wrote -I thank thee Lord. I agree that seems to indicate that he knew he had finished creating a great final composition and thanked God for helping and allowing time to do so.
The second composition on this fine disc is Vocalise. As you would guess it was a vocal composition. It was so successful at its premiere with the famous Koussevitsky conducting in 1916, that Rachmaninoff was persuaded to orchestrate this music immediately afterwards. By doing so he created an extremely beautiful tone poem with the violins doing the vocal line. Here, as with most recordings familiar to me, we are treated to the orchestral version.
The Etudes-Tableaux were written were written in two sets, Opus 33 in 1911 and Opus 39 in 1917. I believe there were approximately nine etudes in each set and scored for solo piano. In the modern era, Richter and Ashkenazy versions have been highly regarded. Around 1930 Koussevitsky received permission from Rachmaninoff to have Respighi orchestrate some of the etudes with Rachmaninoff choosing which ones. The five orchestrated etudes presented have certainly sounded quite wonderful to me. That is not surprising as my feeling is nobody beats Respighi at the "orchestration game"; his masterly scoring of Rossini's LaBoutique Fantasque results in a musical treasure seldom equaled. Here the results are different in kind but just as outstanding with orchestral brilliance. The short section entitled "the fair" is a real audiophile showpiece. Overall the orchestrated Etudes have not become as popular or as frequently performed or recorded as many of Rachmaninoff's compositions. I firmly believe that listening to them will convince listeners of their inherent musical beauty; repeat the listening as needed. It's good to try new compositions and these are probably new to most of you; consider them as a bonus in a fine album. Each etude bears an interesting descriptive title.
I am limiting comparisons to just the Symphonic Dances. My early copy of the well-known and often remastered version by Johanos and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra [Turnabout/VOX TV-34045S] pales in comparison by a bit in performance and quite a bit in sound quality. The performance is simply too relaxed overall to do complete justice to this sparkling composition. Sound-wise lets just call my original copy a poor pressing. My twenty-six year old LP version by Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra in a stereo/quadraphonic pressing by EMI [ASD-3259], His Master's Voice (HMV) label, is competitive and then some! I personally slightly prefer Previn's brisk overall pace to the fine job Oue does on this RR recording. If you're not familiar with the fine HMV recordings (Great Britain) pick up a couple at your closest used record store or your area's next "record show". You may be in for a treat and doubly so if as with this recording they feature one of the modern industry's most famous pairs - the "two Christophers"; that's Christopher Bishop producer and Christopher Parker engineer. Our finest electronics of the past few years, with superbly low noise levels and almost immeasurable distortions bring out many previously hidden gems of information hiding in the grooves of these recordings as well as some others.
The orchestral playing is on essentially equal footing with the ever-improving Minnesota ensemble. Anyway, the final comparison I'll mention is the Ashkenazy-Previn recording. Huh? Yes, this version for two pianos is the other version Rachmaninoff originally composed, so here we have two excellent pianists, each of whom is also an excellent conductor, collaborating for an almost undiscovered gem! Look for it in the U.S.A. as London #CS-7159, in Great Britain as #SXL-6926 or KSXC-6926. Remember that Rachmaninoff was a fine pianist and an outstanding composer for piano. Toss Previn and Ashkenazy into the mix, each giving a dazzlingly virtuoso performance, stir in fine recorded sound and it's possible you'll never hear a performance to equal it. Recordings for solo piano exist, but I don't know if Rachmaninoff actually scored it that way or someone arranged his two piano composition for just one in this instance.
Hopefully our faithful readers are now very familiar with the generally excellent to outstanding sound quality offered by Reference Recordings. If not, you should be, and shame on you for ignoring them. If companies such as RR and others would fold, then there's nobody to push "the big guys" to offer better sound quality! You get most of their quality with any fine CD or DVD player; you get all of it with players manufactured by companies willing to spend a few bucks extra to add the special HDCD decoding chip. Remember, they've been using 24-bit technology for years in their recording process. They have long range plans (but not before the year's end at the very earliest) to offer DVD-Audio in surround sound.
Let me briefly summarize the sound on this superb recording. Overall it is the best I've ever heard from Reference Recordings. That also means that overall there's none better sounding (for non sound effects i.e., real concert hall reproduction) that you can currently purchase. You don't need any more details, just trust me and run out and buy it. Is it night and day better than their previous excellent efforts? Certainly not, but there's a bit of added rich glow and tonal fullness and realism not present to this degree in previous releases. When I questioned producer Tam Henderson about this, he explained that they simply were continuing to "tweak things" such as microphone placement and angulations as they learn more and more about the acoustics of the recording hall. This recording was mastered with HDCD from session tapes recorded at 176.4kHz and 24-bit density. Tam agreed with my assessment of the best sound yet from that venue.
An aside for all that have had the pleasure of dealing with Reference Recordings, public relations dynamo, Janice Mancuso. She and her husband have moved to Oregon and at this moment she is not actively working with RR. All of us wish you the very best Jan.