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Composed: 1936
Length: c. 38 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, xylophone), harp, celesta, and strings
First performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic: August 14, 1973, Edo de Waart conducting

A year before George Gershwin’s death at the age of 37, the latest opus by another celebrated pianist-composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s third and last symphony was completed and premiered on November 6, 1936, by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. Except for the occasional revival by Stokowski and his Philadelphia successor, Eugene Ormandy, it failed to get many hearings elsewhere, as its composer continued to prosper and gain accolades as a pianist, often performing his own works.

It had been nearly 30 years since Rachmaninoff’s previous symphony, in E minor. But whereas the latter is a grandly-scaled, meandering work – an hour in length – the new symphony was relatively concise, coming in at some 40 minutes, and certainly less of an emotional steambath. Then, too, the orchestration of the A-minor Symphony is more transparent than that of its elder, its trajectory straighter than that of its often-performed (in recent decades) predecessor.

One can wonder then at the relative neglect of the Third Symphony, what with Rachmaninoff having become so widely accepted of late by a critical fraternity that once regarded the composer as too overtly emotional, too conservative for the “modern era,” too much of a throwback to the hyperemotionalism of the previous century... to Tchaikovsky in particular, although it would be difficult to point out thematic and technical similarities. But the two Russians do share the same (dark) emotional world, nor can it be denied that Rachmaninoff took no pointers from Stravinsky, which was unseemly after the 1913 premiere of the latter’s Sacre du printemps, which should have been the stake in the heart of Russian romanticism.

There are of course resemblances between Rachmaninoff’s Second and Third symphonies: the Third, like its predecessor, opens with a “motto” that will be heard again in subsequent movements, and which is initially sounded by clarinet, muted horn, and the cellos. It takes a while for the principal theme to make its presence felt, but when it does appear it hardly disappoints as purest Rachmaninoffian palpitating. The “motto” and the new theme are simultaneously developed and expanded, with the motto returning on its own – trumpet, bass trombone, pizzicato strings – having the final, dolorous say.

Movement two likewise begins with the motto, inverted, played by two horns accompanied by harp chords, ushering in a pair of themes – the first, announced by the solo violin in triplets, the second less expansive, by solo flute, subsequently joined by bass clarinet. The central scherzo section – marked allegro vivace – is sufficiently distinct from the surrounding material to be regarded as the third movement of a four-movement symphony: it distantly evokes the eeriness of the finale of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a score of which Rachmaninoff was particularly fond. The scherzo’s striking climax suddenly turns into a forceful march, followed by upward and downward scurrying chords, after which the harp offers a brief recollection of the adagio’s opening. The motto theme, in inversion, brings the movement to a close in harp and pizzicato strings.

The finale begins with some flavorfully Russian, sonorously marching strings. The main theme’s contrapuntal development is a technical tour de force, making one wish that counterpoint were more extensively employed elsewhere in the symphony. Several loud climaxes ensue, interrupted by a gently soulful flute solo set against the omnipresent motto, before Rachmaninoff continues on his triumphantly thunderous celebratory conclusion, all dark thoughts banished.

Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.