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Composed: 1940

Length: c. 35 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, and xylophone), piano, harp, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 18, 1943, William Steinberg conducting

About this Piece

While I was on tour in the Far East, a critic heard me learning the Symphonic Dances and asked if I would be interested in hearing a 20-minute segment from an unreleased (probably accidental) recording of Rachmaninoff playing, singing, and talking about the Symphonic Dances – the playing was unmistakeably that of Rachmaninoff. Two interpretative points emerged from this recording for me:

First, the precautionary tempo marking “non-allegro” in the first movement (as printed in all editions) is adhered to when Rachmaninoff plays it, but not by any of my colleagues (myself included), as we play this section “allegro.” The non-allegro tempo indication was taken out and then later reinserted.

Second – an issue which delighted me in proving that my intuition was correct – is that the great waltz in the last movement is played (and conducted) too slowly. I have tried with numerous colleagues to speed it up, but with no success. On this recording, Rachmaninoff plays with a flowing tempo – all the more heart-breaking for doing so.

Incidentally, Rachmaninoff plays slightly different harmonies and I have used these from this accidental recording. I also enjoyed hearing Rachmaninoff singing the timpani part in the first movement, and his playing of the great solos in the first movement is magnificent and haunting.

– Stephen Kovacevich

In 1940, during the time that Rachmaninoff was scoring his Symphonic Dances, he made a two-piano version from the short score. Translating a brilliant orchestral work to the two-piano idiom so that the musical substance remains viable is a formidable task, and of course composer-pianist Rachmaninoff was more than equipped for the job.

The Symphonic Dances were meant for a ballet to be choreographed by Michel Fokine. Fokine had earlier created a Rachmaninoff-blessed ballet, Paganini, using Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto in all but name, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. But a ballet the Dances were not to be: The music was introduced by the Philadelphia Orchestra in January 1941; Fokine died in 1942. (Rachmaninoff himself died the following year; the Symphonic Dances were his last work.)

The music of the Symphonic Dances is Rachmaninoff on a low-calorie diet. The romantic sentimentality that was his life-long trademark is essentially gone. Instead there is a taut, often muscular directness that looks to be striking out into new, contemporaneous territory. Even the lyrical second theme that contrasts with the dynamism of the opening rhythmic motto, the descending two shorts and a long, has an uncharacteristic coolness. The motto theme becomes an idée fixe in this movement and, somewhat, in the subsequent Dances.

The second movement, marked ‘Tempo di valse,’ has a strong element of fantasy, with its nocturnal mood interspersed with a striking, energetic, pianistically virtuosic waltz. One can imagine a dazzling Fokine choreography set to this music. The third movement, however, with its Danse macabre imagery intensified by the appearance of a frequent Rachmaninoff visitor, the 13th-century Requiem Mass’ Dies irae, doesn’t seem music for dance. In its two-piano version, though, it is certainly a foil for pianists of the brilliant persuasion.

—Orrin Howard