Musical Notes: Rachmaninoff’s ‘Daisies’

Sergei_RachmaninoffMy mid-life of music listening has been enriched by coming back to or meeting for the first time composers I undervalued during my years as a SERIOUS MUSIC PERSON. I guess this re-calibration is natural, if you love Tchaikovsky’s B-flat minor Piano Concerto as a teen, comes a time when you will look back at it as gauche, and then when you’ll back at that backwards glance as silly in turn.

There are some things that there is no going back to. Turandot was my favorite opera as a teenager, and like people who are still listening to Carmina Burana at fifty, I think if I still were a Turandot fancier, it would be hard to refute the conclusion that something had gone wrong with my life in the music department.

One passion that has emerged for me is Rachmaninoff. This will probably seem surprising to many, who know the big tunes and the lush orchestral works: what’s not to love?  I’m a creature of my time, however. For context, Rachmaninoff was not even taught as “20th century music” when I was a music student, although he died in 1943, just 2 years shy of Bartók, the pinnacle of 20th century musical modernism. Rachmaninoff’s tunefulness, a turn towards the broad gesture particularly in the work he wrote in the U.S., did him no favors with the composers and critics looking for a new path. A piano teacher friend of mine dismissed tunes in his Paganini Rhapsody as “schmaltz enlivened by music for the title credits to Bonanza” (Bonanza was a terrible western-themed evening soap opera of my youth.)

There is some truth to the charge–it is pretty corny, but there are responses as well. If the American Rachmaninoff could be a throwback, the Russian one was at least sometimes a modernist, if of gentle mien. Now we (or at least I) can see works like the Third Symphony (given a knock-out performance by the National Symphony Orchestra and their music director designate, Gianandrea Noseda, last fall, as an integrated part of the history of the symphony and a superb one, not a guilty pleasure.

As a taste of this, here is a song by Rachmaninoff, Daisies, both in a piano arrangement, played by the incomparable Emil Gilels

and sung by, Julia Lezhevna, a young Russian soprano with a crystalline voice.

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