Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances for solo piano

Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances are his last major work, completed in 1940. The composer left two versions of the piece, for orchestra (premièred in January 1941 by the dedicatee, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra) and for two pianos (premièred in August 1942 by the composer and Vladimir Horowitz). The work, which was originally called “Fantastic Dances” is cast in three movements, which originally were given the titles “Noon”, “Twilight” and “Midnight”.

There have been several attempts to recast what is one of Rachmaninoff’s most technically and texturally complex scores for the solo piano medium. Firstly, there is a private recording of Rachmaninoff himself playing most of the work through at Ormandy’s home in 1940. Rachmaninoff, who considered the Symphonic Dances to be his finest work, is clearly thoroughly enjoying himself as he not only plays, but sings along and adds spoken instructions to show how he wants the work to be interpreted. Then there is a solo piano transcription by Georgy Kirkor, which is full of instrumental references (implying that it is a transcription of the orchestral score – Kirkor published his edition of the orchestral score in 1961) but actually follows the two piano score closely. There is apparently a further unpublished transcription by Yahli Wagman made in the 1980s, but I have been unable to source a copy of this score.

The pianist also has the option of taking Rachmaninoff’s two-piano version and simply trying to play as much of this as is possible on a single piano. This in some ways is the most faithful approach to the work. In preparing my own recorded performance, I started out with Kirkor’s version, but found this unsatisfactory in several places, where I substituted my own reduction of the two piano score.

I also studied Rachmaninoff’s own performance carefully and noted a number of conclusions, not only about which notes he plays (which provided me with several solutions and alternatives), but about the intended character of the interpretation. It would be difficult to go through such a process without emerging with a renewed respect for Rachmaninoff’s genius both as a composer and as one of the greatest pianists of all time. To hear him in his only surviving live recording, and in a relaxed setting which clearly brought out the best in him, is an inspiring experience.

The first of these conclusions concerns tempo. Rachmaninoff marks the first movement “Non allegro” – not allegro, and this is how he plays it. Almost all performances of the two piano version ignore this marking and play the movement allegro. I have taken my cue from Rachmaninoff’s tempo, and also note that the slower middle section in his hands is in a flowing tempo rather than being too static. The reminiscence of the First Symphony (which was believed lost at that time) at the end of the movement is, by contrast, played slowly and lingeringly. Another change is that in the last movement, Rachmaninoff adopts a significantly faster tempo for the middle section than we are used to hearing.

There are some things that Rachmaninoff does and does not do that might serve as examples for us to follow. It would be impossible to deny that the Symphonic Dances are extremely technically demanding and virtuosic. However, Rachmaninoff’s style as ever remains understated and under supreme control. He does not sacrifice clarity of texture for speed; does not rush or force the tempo, and does not produce a percussive or aggressive sound in fortissimi. Indeed, one of the most remarkable qualities of his performance is in its cantabile tone during the lyrical episodes. Throughout, every note is made to count; we hear a great deal of the countermelodies, particularly in the central movement, and he gives great attention to balance. This last issue is particularly challenging since it is often the case in this work that each hand must cope with several distinct ideas at the same time.

The Symphonic Dances are not always understood in their proper context, and in general Rachmaninoff’s late style remains underappreciated (particularly, for example, the revised version of the Fourth Concerto). There are moments where the influence of Prokofiev and perhaps also Stravinsky’s Rite may be heard, suggesting an absorption of modernist style that is otherwise rare in Rachmaninoff. The work has enormous personal significance, being reminiscent of the world of pre-Revolutionary Russia, but also speaks to larger issues. The middle movement has been referred to as a “devil’s waltz”, while in the last movement, the Dies Irae is contrasted with the chant “Blessed art thou, Lord” (Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi) from his All-Night Vigil. The chant occurs in the ninth movement of the Vigil, where the mourners discover Jesus’s empty tomb; the contrast is therefore between conflicting motives of death and resurrection, which naturally evokes the Harrowing of Hell – the subject of the Russian icon which I have chosen to illustrate the recording. At the final appearance of the resurrection melody, Rachmaninoff writes “Hallelujah” on the score; death is vanquished.