I am an unashamed devotee of Rachmaninoff’s music and have just been playing a 1990 CD, recently re-released, of his Third Symphony, stunningly performed by the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra under Pavel Kagan (on the bargain alto label). It’s a favourite work of mine and hearing it on this re-mastered disc has been a revelation. On the same disc is another superb performance of his Symphonic Dances, both works belonging to the end of his career, both poorly received by the public on their first performances and given to much revision afterwards as was often his practice, even making changes just before a performance. His recording of the third piano concerto which I have and which he made in 1940, has several cuts in the score, to the disappointment of musical purists. And me!
Responding to an invitation for him to perform in Stockholm, he and his wife and two daughters, as their part of Moscow was taken over by the revolutionaries, virtually escaped from Russia in 1917.
They caught a train to Finland, completing their journey by travelling from Finland to Sweden by sledge at night. The family arrived in Stockholm with hand luggage, two thousand roubles and nothing else. Moving eventually to America, he made his home in many places and travelled widely as both composer, conductor and pianist. But international citizen though he became, he saw himself always as Russian. Interviewed in 1941 he said ‘in my compositions no conscious effort has been made to be original, or Romantic or Nationalistic, or anything else. I write down on paper the music I hear within me, as naturally as possible. I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook. ‘
The third symphony was received with some enthusiasm in Britain but less so in the U.S.A. People were reluctant to accept him on his own terms and critics and the public found him either too traditional or too radical.
His great long-breathed tunes and brilliant orchestration remind one of Tchaikovsky (whom he knew of course; as a student he made a piano transcription of the Manfred Symphony, and played it to the composer), but point to influences by Stravinsky and even, for me – in the Symphonic Dances -to Mahler and Bartok. But he was himself, and whatever his influences, the popularity that marked the last years of his life as he continued to perform on both sides of the Atlantic, has endured, and if his second piano concerto continues to be his signature work for many people, there is much, much more to know about him than that one enormously popular work.
He died just before his seventieth birthday, and the day before a cable arrived form many Soviet composers, congratulating him on his birthday.
His music will live for ever.