Conducted by Bas Wiegers, the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest (Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra) performs Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, an orchestral suite in three movements. Completed in 1940, it is Rachmaninoff’s last composition. Recorded on March 17, 2023, at the TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” Op. 45, is a fascinating work that marks the culmination of the composer’s life and musical evolution. Created in 1940, this was Rachmaninoff’s final composition, a reflection of his mature style infused with a deep nostalgia and a retrospective glance at his Russian roots.
Rachmaninoff, a Russian composer who had left his homeland after the Revolution, composed the Symphonic Dances while in the United States. This distance from Russia, both in space and time, permeated the work with a sense of longing and reflection. Though Rachmaninoff had assimilated the influences of Western musical traditions, his Symphonic Dances reveals a composer who never lost touch with the idioms of his Russian heritage, weaving them with the more cosmopolitan styles he encountered in the West.
The music of the Symphonic Dances is richly textured and displays Rachmaninoff’s mastery of orchestration. He employs a wide range of instruments, achieving a palette of sonic colors that is both intricate and powerful. The work is noted for its rhythmic vitality and dynamic contrasts, as well as its melodic beauty, characteristics that are hallmarks of Rachmaninoff’s style.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Symphonic Dances is its symbolic and emotional depth. The music often suggests a dialogue with death and fate, which was a recurring theme in Rachmaninoff’s works. This is particularly compelling given that the Symphonic Dances were composed towards the end of Rachmaninoff’s life, and he seemed to imbue the music with a sense of finality and resolution.
The reception of the Symphonic Dances was quite positive, and it has since become one of Rachmaninoff’s most admired orchestral works. It stands as a testament to his ability to blend melodiousness with rhythmic vigor, and although it does not carry a program or explicit story, the music is evocative and suggests a narrative all its own, filled with emotion and drama.
In terms of its place within the larger context of Rachmaninoff’s work, the Symphonic Dances can be seen as a bridge between the lush Romanticism of his earlier years and a more contemporary sensibility. The work’s structure, thematic development, and orchestration reflect a composer who was fully aware of his musical environment, yet still communicated in a voice that was unmistakably his own.
The Symphonic Dances remain a favorite among orchestras and audiences alike, appreciated for their expressive depth and the challenges they present to performers. The work is a fitting coda to Rachmaninoff’s career, encapsulating his lifelong concerns and his enduring musical legacy.
There are three movements. With start times in the video:
- [00:00] Non Allegro
- [11:51] Andante con moto
- [22:00] Lento Assai – Allegro Vivace
1. Non Allegro
The first movement of Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” marked “Non allegro,” sets the tone for the entire suite with its evocative and sometimes brooding character. The opening movement is imbued with a sense of both reflection and foreboding, reflecting perhaps the composer’s awareness of the encroaching end of his own life as well as the turbulent times in which he lived.
Beginning with a haunting introduction, the first theme is introduced by the woodwinds and is characterized by a lyrical yet somber melody. This theme has a Russian quality to it, reminiscent of the liturgical chants and folk melodies that permeated much of Rachmaninoff’s work. As the movement progresses, the music transitions through different emotional landscapes, sometimes contemplative and at other times more rhythmic and assertive.
The development of the thematic material in the first movement is masterful. Rachmaninoff manipulates the thematic ideas, varying and transforming them throughout the orchestra. The lush and complex orchestration allows the themes to be passed around different sections, showcasing the composer’s skill in creating rich textures and harmonies.
A central characteristic of this movement is its rhythmic complexity. Rachmaninoff employs shifting accents and unexpected syncopations, which, coupled with his characteristic use of rich harmonies, creates a sense of restlessness and intensity. The alternation between the more lyrical sections and these rhythmically vigorous passages gives the first movement a dynamic and dramatic quality.
The movement concludes in a manner that is consistent with its overall mood. The ending is neither fully resolved nor overtly dramatic but leaves the listener in a state of anticipation, setting the stage for the second movement.
Rachmaninoff’s first movement of the Symphonic Dances is often praised for its orchestral color and the depth of its emotional expression. The music reflects a composer looking back over his life and work, a man in exile reflecting on the past while facing an uncertain future, making the most of the present through his art.
Listeners and musicians alike have found the first movement of the Symphonic Dances to be a powerful and moving piece of music. Its performance requires a deep understanding of Rachmaninoff’s style, an appreciation for the nuances of his compositional technique, and a sensitivity to the emotional undercurrents that define the work
2. Andante con moto
The second movement of Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” marked “Andante con moto (Tempo di valse),” presents a striking contrast to the first movement’s brooding character. This movement, often considered the heart of the suite, is in the form of a dark and nostalgic waltz. Rachmaninoff, writing in the twilight of his life and career, seems to infuse this waltz with a deep sense of reminiscence, possibly recalling the pre-revolutionary Russia of his youth.
Structured in a modified ternary form (A-B-A), the second movement begins with a gentle, lilting theme introduced by the saxophone, an instrument not typically found in Rachmaninoff’s orchestral works. The use of the saxophone adds a distinct color to the orchestration and contributes to the unique atmosphere of the dance. This melody has a yearning quality to it, both elegant and tinged with sadness, which is characteristic of Rachmaninoff’s late works.
As the movement unfolds, the music sways between a hauntingly sweet melody and more agitated middle sections. The “B” section of the movement introduces contrasting material that is more rhythmic and intense, providing a dramatic foil to the wistful waltz theme. The orchestration is rich, yet transparent, allowing for the individual lines and the interplay between different instrument groups to shine through.
The waltz theme returns in the final “A” section, bringing back the initial mood, but it is often handled with a greater sense of complexity and depth the second time around. This reprise is not merely a repetition but an elaboration, a common Rachmaninoff technique that adds to the emotional weight of the movement.
Throughout the second movement, there is an underlying rhythmic drive that maintains a sense of motion, even in the more lyrical sections. This ensures that the waltz, while nostalgic, does not become merely sentimental or static. The composer’s mastery of orchestration is evident in the way he creates shades of light and dark, using the orchestra to evoke a wide range of textures and moods.
The Andante waltz is also reflective of the era in which it was written, with the echoes of a grander, bygone age being revisited in a more modern, bittersweet context. Rachmaninoff’s use of harmony is sophisticated, with lush chords and poignant dissonances that speak to a complex emotional landscape.
The movement concludes with a gentle fading away of the music, like the last echoes of a dream or memory, leaving a poignant sense of longing as it transitions into the energetic final movement.
The second movement of the Symphonic Dances, with its blend of wistfulness and restrained passion, is a showcase of Rachmaninoff’s ability to communicate deep emotion without words. It is a dance that is not meant for the ballroom but for the soul, inviting introspection and a sense of inward reflection.
3. Lento Assai – Allegro Vivace
The finale of Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances,” marked “Lento assai – Allegro vivace,” is a vivid and spirited conclusion to the suite. It encapsulates a wide range of emotions, embodying a complex psychological journey that brings the work to a powerful and definitive close.
This movement begins with a slow, introspective introduction, where the motifs seem to be brooding and reflective, echoing the somber mood that permeates the first movement. However, this introspection is not to last. The music soon gives way to an “Allegro vivace,” which is full of life and energy, reflecting perhaps a final, defiant celebration of life and art in the face of the inevitable.
The “Allegro vivace” section of the movement is marked by a vigorous rhythm and a thematic material that is robust and assertive. Here, Rachmaninoff’s orchestration is masterful, with brilliant use of brass and percussion to drive the energy forward. The rhythm is compelling, almost dance-like, yet it is a dance with a complex character, interweaving both joyous and ominous undertones.
Rachmaninoff introduces a theme that is derived from the Dies Irae, the traditional Gregorian chant for the dead. This theme had appeared in various forms in many of his previous works, and here it serves as a symbolic thread, suggesting an awareness of mortality. Yet, Rachmaninoff does not dwell solely on the morbid; rather, he juxtaposes the Dies Irae with his own, life-affirming “Alliluya” theme. It’s as if he’s engaging in a dialogue between life and death, past and present, reflecting his personal experiences and perhaps the turmoil of the world around him at the time.
The movement, and thus the entire suite, culminates in a dramatic coda where Rachmaninoff brings back the Dies Irae theme, but it is transformed, no longer menacing but triumphant. The “Alliluya” theme also returns, reinforcing the sense of victory and resolution. The ending is powerful and decisive, with the full orchestra engaged in delivering a message that seems to transcend the music itself.
The Symphonic Dances’ third movement is often perceived as a reconciliation of the different elements presented throughout the suite – a synthesis of the introspective and the exuberant, the nostalgic and the forward-looking. It is also seen as a fitting end to Rachmaninoff’s career, encapsulating the essence of his musical journey and his final statement as a composer.
The movement is complex not just emotionally but also technically. The shifts between the somber and the spirited, the use of rhythmic motifs, and the integration of the Dies Irae theme all require great skill from the musicians. Conductors and performers alike must navigate the changing tempos and dynamics to effectively convey the movement’s full impact.
For audiences, the third movement is often a thrilling and emotionally charged experience, leaving a lasting impression of Rachmaninoff’s powerful musical voice. It is an ending that brings closure not only to the suite but also serves as a profound closing gesture to the composer’s entire body of work.
- Symphonic Dances (Rachmaninoff) on Wikipedia
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