22 March 2023
Two Rachmaninoff Discoveries - Two Knights in 1937
By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music
I recently acquired for the British Library Sound Archive an important collection of discs professionally recorded from radio broadcasts during the 1930s. The donor, Mike Sell, had known Harold Vincent Marrot in the 1950s. Marrot had a passion for Russian music and the means to have a number of broadcasts professionally recorded onto disc for his own personal listening pleasure. Among these are broadcasts of two important works by the great Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff who was born 150 years ago this year.
Rachmaninoff left Russia in 1917 and lived in Europe and the United States for the remainder of his life. In the mid-1930s he built a house, Villa Senar, on the shores of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, and it was here in 1935 and 1936 that he wrote his Third Symphony. The work was first performed by Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) and the Philadelphia Orchestra on 6th November 1936 but Europe had to wait a year before it was heard for the first time there, in London, on 18th November 1937 at the Queen’s Hall. This premiere was given by Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and fortunately, this was one of the broadcasts recorded by Mr Marrot. How wonderful to be able to hear this important premiere, recorded more than 85 years ago!
Beecham repeated the symphony in Manchester with the Hallé Orchestra the following month, but apparently after that, he never performed the work again due to its lukewarm reception by both critics and audience. Indeed, some critics were unnecessarily harsh in their reviews of the work – ‘S. F.’ in the Daily Herald heading his review ‘Music for Tea-Shops’ claimed that ‘its melancholy minor key….its faint aroma of incense, its tea-shop sentiment, and its mildly alarming melodrama all mark the composer as living in the past.’ The Times correspondent made a far more intelligent criticism:
The surprise at this procedure is due to the fact that Rachmaninoff’s invention has always lain in the direction of lyrical melody and picturesque orchestral colour, and not in the creation of the kind of pregnant themes that develop into the kind of symphonic texture he has here essayed.
With Rachmaninoff writing in a melodic and emotional style at odds with the then current trends in music, he was a sitting target for biased critics who saw him as out dated and old fashioned. The notorious entry in the 1954 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians states, ‘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 favour.’ How wrong critics can be, but how unfortunate that they also try to denigrate the work of an artist in this way, because as we know, 150 years after his birth, Rachmaninoff’s music is more popular than ever. If the Third Symphony is not as familiar to many as his Second or Third Piano Concertos, or the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, it is because it is played less often. The composer himself believed strongly in the worth of this composition and conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in a commercial recording of it for Victor in 1939. In a letter to Vladimir Wilshaw the composer wrote:
It was played in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc. At the first two performances I was present. It was played wonderfully. Its reception by both the public and critics was sour. One review sticks painfully in my mind: that I didn't have a Third Symphony in me anymore. Personally, I am firmly convinced that this is a good work. But—sometimes composers are mistaken too! Be that as it may, I am holding to my opinion so far.
Here is the opening of the Symphony.
Although Beecham did not perform the work again, it was taken up by Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944) who heard the London premiere and wrote to the composer:
Just a few lines to tell you we dashed from Southport to London last Thursday and arrived at Queen's Hall at 9:30 pm just in time to hear your splendid 3rd Symphony - it scored a real success - what a lovely work it is - I thought the orchestra gave a fine performance of it. I am playing it twice after Christmas, at a Liverpool Philharmonic Concert on March 22nd and a studio concert on April 3rd. If there is any advice you can offer me as regards your feeling or readings, of the Symphony, please do so and I shall be most grateful.....
Rachmaninoff attended the March rehearsal and performance of the Symphony by his friend. Later Wood wrote to the composer:
It was so kind of you to come and you were so helpful and sympathetic. I predict that if I keep on playing this symphony for a year or two (which I fully intend to do), it will find a place in the repertoire of every conductor.
Wood may have been optimistic about the Symphony and its promotion by other conductors, but he seems not to have broadcast it again. However, Sir Henry was also connected with another important work by Rachmaninoff, The Bells.
Rachmaninoff wrote his choral symphony The Bells in 1913. Konstantin Balmont published a Russian version of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem which Rachmaninoff set to music. The four movements are Silver Sleigh bells, Mellow Wedding bells, Loud Alarm bells and Mournful Iron bells. The work is dedicated to the great Dutch conductor Willelm Mengelberg and his Concertgebouw Orchestra and again, the US premiere was given by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra on 6th February 1920.
The British premiere was due take place at the 1914 Sheffield Festival but the First World War prevented this and it was not until 1921 that Sir Henry Wood and the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus gave the premiere on 15th March. Fifteen years later, at the committee’s invitation, Rachmaninoff participated in the Sheffield Festival of October 1936 where Wood had suggested the composer conduct a performance of The Bells. Rachmaninoff declined as he was due to play his Second Piano Concerto in the same concert; therefore Wood conducted The Bells himself on 21st October where a new, rewritten version of the third movement was heard for the first time. Sir Henry commented on this in the programme notes:
The voice parts of this movement were entirely rewritten for the Sheffield Festival last October, 1936, and published separately, as the composer told me he found the choral writing too complicated, that it did not make the effect he intended. Certainly at Liverpool in 1921, I had the utmost difficulty in getting the chorus to keep up the speed and maintain any clarity, amongst the great mass of chromatic passages, and certainly vocal power was out of the question, and I feel the composer did very wisely in re-writing this section of the work. As it now stands, the chorus writing is splendidly distinctive, full of colour, and easily ‘gets over’ the brilliant orchestral texture.
The composer expressed dissatisfaction with the acoustics of Sheffield City Hall, ‘It is the deadest hall I have ever been in,’ was his view to which Wood added that he was glad to have his opinion substantiated by such an eminent authority.
The following February Sir Henry performed the work at the Queen’s Hall and Mr Marrot had the broadcast recorded.
Listen, hear the silver bells!
Hear the sledges with the bells,
How they charm our weary senses with a sweetness that compels,
In the ringing and the singing that of deep oblivion tells.
Hear them calling, calling, calling,
Rippling sounds of laughter, falling
On the icy midnight air;
And a promise they declare,
That beyond illusions cumber,
Generations past all number,
Waits an universal slumber – deep and sweet past all compare.
This is a tremendous performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and particularly the 400 strong Philharmonic Choir coached by Charles Kennedy Scott (father of aviator and RAF heavy-weight boxing champion C. W. A. Scott). Here is an extract from the third movement, Loud Alarm bells which gives an idea of the power and drama one must have felt at the performance, particularly when the choir sings ‘I shall soon’. This work is in better recorded sound than the Symphony; the BBC had one microphone suspended above and to the left of the head of the conductor in the Queen’s Hall and it is amazing to hear not only what it picked up, but also the high quality and wide frequency range of the disc cutting equipment.
Hear them, hear the brazen bells,
Hear the loud alarum bells!
In their sobbing, in their throbbing what a tale of horror dwells!
How beseeching sounds their cry
‘Neath the naked midnight sky,
Through the darkness wildly pleading
Now approaching, now receding
Rings their message through the night.
And so fierce is their dismay
And the terror they portray,
That the brazen domes are riven, and their tongues can only speak
In a tuneless jangling, wrangling as they shriek, and shriek, and shriek,
Till their frantic supplication
To the ruthless conflagration
Grows discordant, faint and weak.
But the fire sweeps on unheeding,
And in vein is all their pleading
With the flames!
From each window, roof and spire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher
Every lambent tongue proclaims:
I shall soon.
Leaping higher, still aspire, till I reach the crescent moon;
Else I die
In this performance Isobel Baillie (1895-1983) is the soprano soloist, Parry Jones (1891-1963) the tenor and, as a last minute substitute, Roy Henderson (1899-2000) sang the baritone role replacing Harold Williams (who was listed in the Radio Times). The performance is sung in an English translation by Fanny S. Copeland of Balmont’s Russian version.
The work ends with Mournful Iron bells and the chance for us to hear baritone Roy Henderson followed by the wonderful orchestral coda in the major key.
While those iron bells, unfeeling,
Through the void repeat the doom:
There is neither rest nor respite, save the quiet of the tomb!
The programme had commenced with the Italian Symphony of Mendelssohn followed by pianist Arthur Rubinstein as soloist in the Piano Concerto by John Ireland and the Variations Symphoniques by Franck, another change from the advertised programme of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The Bells ended the programme and apparently was not heard again in the UK until the late 1960s.
These two performances of Rachmaninoff’s music are by people associated with the birth of these works and as such are of great historical importance, particularly from a performance perspective. Both recordings will be issued complete on CD by Biddulph Recordings in May.
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