RACHMANINOFF:  Symphonic Dances, Op. 45.  Vocalise, Op. 34. Etudes-tableaux (orch. Respighi)
Minnesota Orch/Eiji Oue, cond.

REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR 96 (F) (DDD) TT:  67:06
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Hardly have we had time to gasp at the recorded sound of Ref/Rec's Respighi from Minneapolis (Pines of Rome; Belkis, Queen of Sheba Suite, and Ballata delle Gnomini) than "Professor" Keith Johnson and producer J. Tamblyn Henderson Jr. follow it with this elegantly interpreted, gorgeously played collection of Rachmaninov by Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra. Nothing here is "new," although I know only two other versions of the Respighi-orchestrated Etudes-tableaux—five of those 17 "Picture-Studies" composed in 1911 (the first eight as Op. 33, from which SR subtracted two, then restored them in a later publication) and 1916-17 (the remaining nine as Op. 39). Serge Koussevitzky commissioned and premiered the suite at Boston in 1931, hoping for another Pictures at an Exhibition, which he'd commissioned from Ravel nine years earlier with storied success.

Despite Respighi's uncanny replication of Rachmaninov's orchestral signature—with SR's approval and cooperation—the suite never caught on, even with movement-titles supplied by the composer for the project. Both RR's program book and back cover list these, but opus numbers only in the notes, scattered at that, which make no mention of Nos. 7-8 being removed from and then returned to Op. 33. This is of some moment since the second orchestrated Etude-tableau ("The Fair" SR called it) is Op. 33/7, one of the excisions later restored. The rest Respighi selected from Op. 39: "Sea and the Seagulls" (No. 2), "Funeral March" (No. 7), "Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf" (No. 6), and finally "March" in D-major (No. 9).

In the event, Oue's interpretation is surpassingly subtle, and would be so even if recorded competition were stiffer than James DePriest and the Oregon Symphony on Delos or Jesús López-Cobos and the Cincinnati SO on Telarc. It's fascinating to me that Oue and his countryman, Tadaaki Otaka—Japanese conductors of the post-Ozawa generation—are such intuitive interpreters of Rachmaninov (not to mention, in Oue's case, Respighi too). Otaka leads the Welsh National BBC of Cardiff on Nimbus, although not in any of these works. But Oue has the finer orchestra by a distance—one whose saxophonist in the first Symphonic Dance plays that instrument as creamily as I've ever heard by a "classical" musician (and deserved, in fact, program credit). Oue's leavetaking after the 2001/02 season is puzzling, although interpretively in the past, on several of the orchestra's dozen Ref/Rec discs before this one, he has been efficient and musicianly without making one sit forward with ears a-quiver.

Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, is delivered in the "warmer" Western tradition rather than the sharper-edged, more sinister style of Russian-school conductors. For me the best of the latter, and still my benchmark, is Mariss Jansons with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic on EMI 101716, which coupled Symphony No. 3. But this is bewilderingly absent from Schwann Opus, although it may be reissued at midprice in a Double-fforte box with Jansons' Second Symphony (his reading of which was inexplicably prosaic). In the three Dances, Jansons is brisker by a couple of minutes, notably in the middle movement, "Tempo di valse" (aka Andante con moto): overall 34:32 vs. Oue's 36:52. But Oue's is more sinuous throughout, and so breathtakingly recorded that listeners with HDCD equipment can blow out their speakers (I say that even without having an HDCD player, eheu!), leaving the rest of us to settle for ero-ero with class. Jansons organizes the finale more tightly, to its benefit, but I don't want to be without either.

Before moving on, one anecdote not generally known. When Eugene Ormandy received the score in 1940 (he gave the world premiere on January 3, 1941, and made the first recording, in 1960—still a classic and still available on Sony, although it deserves 24/7 remastering), string bowings were eyeboggling. It's generally known that he visited Rachmaninov to ask about this—the composer was then in residence at the far end of Long Island—and was told to come in late morning. Ormandy did, by car from Philadelphia, at least a three-hour-plus journey in those years. When asked who did the bowings, Rachmaninov replied "Fritz"—Kreisler, no less, who probably had never played in an orchestra. But he told Ormandy, already a virtuoso violinist and teacher at the age of 17, to make whatever changes he felt the strings could play best. What is not generally known was Ormandy's plaint, spoken 35 years later during dinner in Philadelphia,"After that long drive and an hour's discussion, he didn't even invite me to stay for luncheon! And I was very hungry by then."

The Vocalise, Op. 34, a wordless song orchestrated by the composer in 1912 for Koussevitzky, has become Rachmaninov's equivalent of the Barber Adagio, which is to say a ubiquitous filler. The Minnesota strings play it sumptuously, but so have a lot of other string bodies on discs for three-quarters of a century. The difference here is HDCD sound to bathe in for 6:50. An investment in the rest, though, is especially urged.

R.D. (Sept. 2001)