The Harvest Of Sorrow (Tony Palmer's Film About Sergei Rachmaninoff )
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Specially commissioned performances conducted by VALERY GERGIEV with the Kirov Orchestra and Chorus of The Mariinsky Theater
Chorus Master: Valery Borisov
Rachmaninoff’s letters and other reminiscences spoken by Sir John Gielgud.
Used in films like Brief Encounter and Shine; on TV in The South Bank Show and Panorama; on radio in Semprini Serenade; and including some of the most famous melodies of the 20th century, Rachmaninoff’s romantic, passionate music is as popular today as it has ever been. This 100-minute documentary film, shot in Russia, Switzerland and America, is made with the full participation of the composer’s grandson, Alexander Rachmaninoff.
Featuring soloists Mikhail Pletnev (with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado, and his own Russian National Orchestra), Dmitri Hvorostovsky and young stars Valentina Igoshina, Peter Jablonski and Nikolai Putilin, the music is specially recorded with the great conductor Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg, with which Rachmaninoff was intimately associated. Tony Palmer’s film, with Rachmaninoff’s own words spoken by Sir John Gielgud, is a unique and loving insight into a world long gone, but definitely not forgotten.
Extracts from home movies of Sergei Rachmaninoff © Alexander Rachmaninoff used by kind permission of Alexander Rachmaninoff.
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Besides Gergiev, we are treated to some superb playing by the likes of Mikhail Pletnev, Alexander Toradze, Valentina Igoshina, the singing of Dmitry Hvorostovsky and others.
Somehow missing is any mention of Rachmaninoff's sojourn in Dresden, that beautiful city, capital of the Kingdom of Saxony that was senselessly (and arguably, criminally) incinerated by the RAF in 1945. Rachmaninoff and his family lived there for 3 years in a rented house on Sidonienstrasse, from the end of 1906 through 1909. He moved to the beautiful Saxon capital to allow himself time and space to work without interruption, and also because of its proximity to Leipzig and its musical life. He much admired the Gewandhaus and its conductor, Arthur Nikisch, whose Tchaikovsky 6th Rachmaninoff described as "... a work of genius. One cannot go beyond this". In Dresden, where he admired the opera, he composed such important works as the Piano Sonata no. 1, the gorgeous 2nd Symphony, the opera Mona Vanna (alas, never finished), some important piano transcriptions and others.
Some may find the breaking, whispery, raspy voice of Sir John Gielgud too distracting, even annoying. I was reminded of Robert Frost's poem "An Old Man's Winter Night". Maybe Rachmaninoff sounded that way in the last days of his life due to terminal illness and the finality of the realization that he was never going to see his beloved Russia again. Some may even approve of Gielgud's doom and gloom approach to speaking for Rachmaninoff. But he was not "6 foot 2 of Russian gloom", as Stravinsky once described him. This is evident from the footage presented and from the vivid testimony of his surviving relatives like that of Sofia Satina, his niece, seen towards the end of this documentary.
He once saw a performance of Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow" and declared it "a work of genius" and that it made him "laugh like a fool". Likewise he laughed silly at Jewish and Armenian jokes. I think that there is a natural inclination in certain societies, particularly a society centered on slick entertainment and trivial pursuits, to commingle the concepts of seriousness with gloom. Rachmaninoff was a serious person, not necessarily a gloomy one.
Sofia Satina also mentions the fascination that church bells held for Rachmaninoff, whose sounds can be spotted in many of his compositions. As a child, he would go to listen to the church bells in the city of Novgorod, near his family home.
True, there is an element of gloom in some of his music like in the "Isle of the Dead", but Rachmaninoff has always been misunderstood (even underrated), especially by music critics. In the 60's and 70's I read more than a few music reviews that were dismissive of his music, presumably for being too musical (i.e., not modern). This one, from the 50's is typical:
<<Technically he was highly gifted, but also severely limited. His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes accompanied by a variety of figures derived from arpeggios. The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff's works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favor. Eric Blom (ed.) Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1954) vol. 7, p. 27.>>
That is when I learned never to listen to music critics again.
Maybe these days when noise and cacophony pass for art and music, the melodies of Rachmaninoff may be an incongruity or anachronism. At the end of this documentary, Gergiev reminds us of the important contributions to music made by Serge Rachmaninoff with his piano playing and his melodic output and reminds us that it is not easy to create such long melodic lines, some as long as one minute, that manage also to hold the listener's interest and how these resolve into new melodies like doors that open to new wonders. Like in the Hermitage museum, I would add.
If you cannot stand the voice of Gielgud, then turn down the volume when he speaks, but this documentary is a must for all lovers of the music of Serge Rachmaninoff.
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