November 2001

Rachmaninoff - Symphonic Dances
Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra
Reference Recordings  RR96CD
Released: 2001

by Russell Lichter

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality *****
Overall Enjoyment *****

[Reviewed on CD]The Symphonic Dances, Serge Rachmaninoff’s last complete work, was composed initially for two pianos (there is an excellent interpretation by Martha Argerich and Alexandre Rabinovitch on Teldec [D 100109]). Supposedly, the composer himself was surprised at the excellence of the orchestrated version when he attended its premiere. Receiving the enthusiastic congratulations of friends, he is reported to have said, "I don’t know how it happened, it must have been my last spark."

The other pieces on this CD owe their existence in orchestral form to Serge Koussevitsky. It was Koussevitsky who urged the composer to orchestrate the Vocalise and who suggested some years later that Rachmaninoff choose five Études Tableaux ("Picture Studies") to be orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi.

Respighi transformed the piano scores of the Études Tableaux, creating his own, quite magical visions rich in drama and color, declaring what is merely suggested in the originals. And although Respighi may not always adhere to the spirit of the original, his music is always rich and wonderful in its own right. Curiously, it almost seems as if Rachmaninoff were thinking in orchestral terms when he composed the Études.

Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra handle this music with impressive conviction and precision of spirit. They evoke a thoroughly convincing sense of the majesty and vastness of the Symphonic Etudes, the idiosyncratic drama and beauty of the Études Tableaux, and the romantic longing of the Vocalise. These are performances which capture what the music is really about -- particularly in the Symphonic Dances. Other versions I know, such as Yuri Temirkanov's (RCA Victor 09026-62710-2), lack the energy, excitement, the involvement, and conviction of Eiji Oue’s performance.

Reference Recordings CDs have a well-deserved reputation for sonic excellence. Keith Johnson’s engineering, mastering, and production have, in this case, produced an HDCD that is quite simply the finest orchestral recording I have ever heard. It is instantly among that handful of CDs I will carry with me to audition sound systems, or that I will play to show off my own. The sound stage is deep and wide and precise, the orchestral voices articulate and spacious, the dynamic range is full and rich with nuance, and the timbres of the individual instruments stunning in their approach to live music. I know of no other orchestral recording that conveys with equal conviction a sense of being in the actual venue while the music is being made.

Listening to this recording is one of those exultant musical experiences that will remind you why you got into the audiophile game in the first place -- to hear great music reproduced in a realistic manner. This is one disc that delivers on that promise both musically and sonically.