Revisit: Rachmaninoff Symphony no. 3 in A minor, op. 44

preformed by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra under Mariss Jansons, or below by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy

It is the creation of a genial mind laboring in a field well known and loved by it, but not seeking now to raise the fruit of heroic proportions….

W. J. Henderson

(cover image by Marc-Olivier Jodoin)

The work’s composition began in April of 1935, while the composer was in good spirits in his newly-built summer home in Switzerland. He intended to compose a symphony there, but ended up having some delays that summer. One thing led to another and it was finally ready for its premiere on November 6, 1936 with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The composer had arrived “just in time” for final rehearsals before this performance. As we shall see in a continuation of the quote that began this article, the reception was not terribly warm.

You may not realize, with an opus number of  44, how late a work this actually is. It would be early for Beethoven or Brahms. Only one other of Rachmaninoff’s works after this one has an opus number, the Symphonic Dances, from 1940. The second piano concerto dates from 1900-01, the second symphony in 1907, and the third piano concerto in 1909. There’s an entire decade between opus number 39 (Études Tableaux) and opus 40 (the fourth piano concerto), and this third symphony comes a full decade after that work. So when we say late, we really do mean it.

The work is in three movements:

  1. Lento – Allegro moderato – Allegro
  2. Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro vivace
  3. Allegro – Allegro vivace – Allegro (Tempo primo) – Allegretto – Allegro vivace.

The central movement does double duty as slow movement and scherzo, and as you can see, there are a plethora of tempo changes throughout.

The first movement probably still sounds Russian to the ear, but maybe not in the way that earlier Rachmaninoff does. We might hear the younger, broader composer in the softer movements of the first symphony, but in this structure, the symphony is built upon what comes in this movement. Clarinet, horns and cellos meld together masterfully in Jansons’ recording to sound like one single, mellow tenor voice. This is followed quickly, almost harshly by a huge orchestral flutter as the beginning of a robust symphony with both punch and lyricism. The development, and really I think, the whole work in general, doesn’t really hold your hand and guide you along like some others might, but it makes for an exciting, very musical ride, but ends quietly.

The second movement begins with a solo horn. It’s in this opening that we hear the Rachmaninoff we might have been expecting, but also where it seems to take a page out of The Great Finn’s book of nearly two decades earlier. Again the sound of the horn here is mellow and warm and soft, leading to other solos eventually. Perhaps you can hear the pastoral nature of what a summer house in Switzerland might be like, and although the contrast in slow movement and scherzo is a big one, it seems here that they’re cut from the same cloth, and this synthesis is very effective.

The finale has a tautness and clarity, a ‘Russianness’, if I may, and it’s also the most positive. Remember that big orchestral flutter at the beginning? Does it sound familiar? Compare the openings of these movements, and you’ll get the most obvious hint that this work as a cyclic form to it. There’s more here than just celebration, though, which we can see by viewing the myriad tempo changes. In this largely jovial movement, though, we still get a Dies Irae. Wouldn’t you know it? It also ends quite abruptly

The piece was considered perplexing, different from the universally esteemed piano concertos (at least the middle two). After calling the the use of the first movement’s two subjects “orthodox” and “customary”, Henderson, who began this article, says the development “pays only polite respect to tradition.” He praises the “cantabile theme of the first movement,” calling it “especially attractive in its lyric and plaintive character,” in contrast with the first subject’s “virility.” Ultimately, he ends on a rather more positive note than the opening quote would suggest:

… we suspect, after this insufficient first hearing, that there is more organic unity in this symphony through consanguinity of themes than is instantly discernable [sic].

Since this article is a revisit, I’d like to talk about it in that context, listening to the work now, more than four years into writing this blog, as compared with October of 2013 (almost four and a half years ago) when it was the third article I’d ever written, a rough one no doubt.

For one, its unique hybrid structure. Even if I’d really listened to this piece, I wouldn’t have appreciated how this form is achieved, or likened it to Sibelius. But now, more familiar with the symphonic tradition, how form is generated and what its purpose is, it’s easier to see what is unique about this specific approach. And that can be said of another area.

There is also, overall, the difference in sound when compared with the composer’s earlier works. I didn’t know the difference back then, or appreciate what specifically makes this work different.

And the Dies Irae. In this relatively optimistic finale, Rachmaninoff still can’t help but insert his little signature, a wink to the Dies Irae in the finale. It’s something I certainly didn’t pick up on in 2013. While the work has its melancholy moments, it’s interesting that here, in the most celebratory, optimistic movement of the work, is when we get the reference to a Latin hymn about the ‘day of wrath.’ Interesting, huh?

So maybe those are small things, but overall, they are areas where a listener can form a useful, practical impression of a work. I bet it will be a long time before I come back and pull this up in my library to listen to again. That being said, it is an interesting work, from a happier time in the composer’s life, one where he’s doing ever so slightly more modern things. Not earth shattering, as Henderson said, but it’s nice to see how he developed over time. That’s it for now, and we’ll be moving on to something very different, so stay tuned and thank you so much for reading.

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