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A guilty pleasure

1 Robert Levine

I generally enjoy playing (and even listening to) Rachmaninoff - but I usually don’t respect myself the next morning for having done so.

This week, though, might be different. We’re doing the Rachmaninoff third concerto (“Rock 3″, in tribal parlance) and the second symphony. I’m finding it makes a huge difference in how interesting Rachmaninoff sounds when the orchestra does what’s actually on the page in terms of dynamics and tempi.

Edo’s guiding principle seems to be what I heard him say in Hong Kong a few times: “a little more urtext, please.” Obviously there’s more to good Rachmaninoff than that; it goes quickly back and forth between great lushness and passages where any lack of precision is deadly, and we spent a lot of time on precision in rehearsal (and some on lushness as well).

But a determined absence of sentimentality (which apparently Rachmaninoff exhibited in his own performances) and attention to detail makes a huge difference in how well the discourse of the piece works.

Edo told a story about cuts this morning (we’re not doing any, although we are omitting the first-movement repeat; I wonder if that repeat has ever been done). Apparently he ran into Eugene Ormandy years ago in an airport somewhere. Ormandy asked him what he had coming up; Edo told him he was doing the second symphony with San Francisco, but without cuts. Ormandy told him he had to do the cuts; they were, after all, cuts that Rachmaninoff himself had approved. Edo asked Ormandy if Rachmaninoff had actually ever said anything to him about the cuts, to which Ormandy rather sheepishly replied that “he said he didn’t like really them.”

There is a famous story about the first read-through of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, which was premiered by Koussevitsky and Boston. Bartok was in the audience for the read-through, and apparently kept interrupting the rehearsal with comments about how it really ought to go. After not too many minutes of this, Koussevitsky called a break and asked Bartok to come back to his dressing room. After the break, Koussevitsky announced to the orchestra that “Maestro Bartok thinks that everything is just fine now.” Bartok was apparently no longer in the hall to contradict the real Maestro about that, or any other, assertion made from the podium.

I wonder if Rachmaninoff’s approval for the cuts in the second symphony was obtained in a similar fashion.


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  1. Comment by Patricia Whaley
    October 17, 2019 at 8:47 PM

    I have, on occasion, felt the same way about the fact that i adore “La Boheme”. And you know what? I think we’re both being colossally silly, as are the “they” who have decreed that liking Rachmaninoff is only suitable for children and the unsophisticated, and “real” music lovers only enjoy that which is thorny and incomprehensible. Go listen to the “Symphonic Dances” again and try to keep still, or not get swept away by that glorious alto sax solo. The man could write a tune, let’s face it, and those who can’t appreciate his craftsmanship and the way he wears all of our hearts on his sleeve are missing out. Go ahead and respect yourself tomorrow morning.