“A Validation Overwhelming and Unprecedented” — Babayan and Trifonov Perform Rachmaninoff

Today’s on-line “The American Scholar” includes something of mine on a magnificent new recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” – and why it matters. You can read the whole thing here.. An extract follows: 

Rachmaninoff left two versions of the Symphonic Dances: one for orchestra, the other for two pianos. He premiered the latter, privately, with Vladimir Horowitz. What that sounded like we can only guess. But he also inadvertently left a third version – which eventually became the biggest classical music find of recent decades. And now we have another find: a seminal new DG recording, by Sergei Babayan and Danill Trifonov, that realizes in full the magnitude of Rachmaninoff’s musical leave-taking.

Because Rachmaninoff refused to permit broadcasting or recording of his live performances, we only have his RCA recordings: studio jobs. But on December 21, 1940, the conductor Eugene Ormandy privately recorded Rachmaninoff playing through the Symphonic Dances in preparation for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s premiere performance the following month. This “third version” was released in 2018 as part of a three-CD Marston Records set titled “Rachmaninoff Plays Symphonic Dances.” As I wrote in a review for The Wall Street Journal: “The result is one of the most searing listening experiences in the history of recorded sound. . . As privately imparted to Ormandy, Rachmaninoff’s impromptu solo-piano rendering . . . documents roaring cataracts of sound, massive chording, and pounding accents powered by a demonic thrust the likes of which no studio environment has ever fostered.” It equally registers a trembling undertow of memories faraway and yet omnipresent.

This unprepared, off-the-cuff 26-minute rendition of a 35-minute composition is also necessarily hit and miss, and full of gaps. It sets a towering bar; it documents a lost world. But it is incomplete. The new Babayan/Trifonov recording is in no way a replica. . . . Authentically rendered by Babayan and Trifonov, however, are Rachmaninoff’s magisterial fluidity of tempo and pulse, the heroic range of dynamics, the convulsive ebb and flow, seething and poignant, of an epic confessional. It is a validation overwhelming and unprecedented.

I also write:

In 1952, the Central Intelligence Agency covertly supported an unprecedented international arts festival lavish in cost and purpose: “Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century.” It took place in Paris over the course of a full month. The mastermind was Nicolas Nabokov, Secretary General of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, then the major instrument of American Cold War cultural propaganda. 

Nabokov’s premise was that the United States had displaced Europe and Russia as the reigning home for the Western arts. And the twentieth century’s presiding genius, for Nabokov, was his friend Igor Stravinsky, resident in Los Angeles (and like Nabokov living in self-imposed exile from his Russian homeland). Stravinsky dominated the repertoire for Nabokov’s myriad Paris festival performances. Nabokov’s concept was to celebrate “free artists” – cosmopolites liberated from parochial national schools and from the oppressive Soviet yoke. His larger claim – that only “free societies” produce great art, was the fundamental cultural premise of the CIA, State Department, and White House. (In my book The Propaganda of Freedom: JFK, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and the Cultural Cold War, I dub this counter-factual Cold War doctrine the “propaganda of freedom.”)

Nabokov’s favorite case in point was Dmitri Shostakovich. As a widely acknowledged expert on Soviet culture, he influentially denigrated Shostakovich as a Soviet stooge (and named Vittorio Rieti and William Schuman composers of greater consequence). Of the hundreds of compositions programed in Paris in 1952 (by the leading opera companies of Vienna and London, by the New York City Ballet, and by orchestras from Boston, West Berlin, Paris, Geneva, and Rome), Shostakovich was represented by a single piece: a suite from his opera Lady Macbeth.  Nabokov chose it because this, notoriously, was the subversive “muddle” that enraged Stalin and provoked a musical crackdown. Wholly unnoticed was that another Russian composer of consequence, like Stravinsky living in the US, was not played at all. This, of course, was the late Sergei Rachmaninoff, written off as a hopeless anachronism.

Today, Nabokov is the anachronism. 

To read my “American Scholar” review of a recent Rachmaninoff biography, click here.

To read my “American Scholar” essay on “ripeness” in musical performance, click here

To read my previous blogs about Sergei Babayan, click here and here


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