Most of this summer consists of downtime. With so many ongoing and looming projects, I knew I would need to dedicate many of these weeks to my books, music compositions, and outdoor grilling pursuits.
Although I had one conducting date at the Hollywood Bowl, I will wait until next month to write about it, along with what I anticipate will be a most interesting couple weeks of conducting in Taiwan.
But July also included a couple of other highlights worth mentioning.
In a typical month, Cindy and I spend most of our time together, whether at home or on the road. However, now that she has become increasingly involved in photography, some trips are well-suited for her to take without me. Accompanied by her sister, she traveled to Iceland for ten days of hiking and picture-taking. I will let her show you a few examples of what she discovered on that outing.
Meanwhile, I used a few of those days to visit Daniel in LA. He is working on a symphonic piece, and since he spends most of his time writing music for moving images, I thought it might be helpful to offer him some advice on the world of abstract composition. The piece is coming along nicely, and we had a few aha moments when a decision or two about a particular passage made all the difference.
The piece will not be premiered for about a year, but if it turns out to be as good as I suspect, you can look for it to appear on some of my programs in the 24-25 season. We also took in the latest Indiana Jones installment, enjoying the ride but missing Spielberg’s breadth of vision. A visit to Michael Gorfaine, Daniel’s agent, proved most insightful when it came to understanding more about the writers’ and now actors’ strikes. Doesn’t look promising.
Speaking of the biz, I upgraded the audio and visual equipment in my home-entertainment cave. Now the planes in Maverick: Top Gun really do whiz right over my head in the basement. And a speaker change where my computer sits means that I do not have to wear headsets all the time.
Last month, I wrote about the reissuing of the very first recordings I made fifty years ago. I am very pleased to see that these Gershwin re-releases are being received so well. Naxos has bought the Vox catalogue outright and is also putting out many of the other discs I made for that label. In celebration of the 150thanniversary of Rachmaninov’s birth, Naxos is simultaneously reissuing my various Rachmaninov recordings, including the concertos with Abbey Simon and the St. Louis Symphony, the Second Symphony and Vocalise in St. Louis, and the symphony cycle in Detroit. More than 30 years separate the St. Louis and Detroit performances.
As more of these discs see the light of day, I thought you might enjoy reading my thoughts on how the different versions stack up, as well as a couple stories about how the recordings came to be.
After the success of the Gershwin project, Vox wanted to move forward with another cycle, this time the complete piano and orchestra works of Rachmaninov. At the keyboard was one of the label’s artists, the vastly underrated Abbey Simon. For these albums, made over a two-year span, we were able to schedule concert performances of each work, making the recording process a bit easier.
Of course, there were already several Rachmaninov cycles available, including one by the composer himself. Perhaps ours did not break new ground, but each recording has a solid quality to it. Furthermore, being on a budget label, the discs reached a wide audience.
Abbey was accurate to a fault, and the sessions flew by. Precisely because the pianist’s playing was so clean, we were able to start another project. When we finished recording the Fourth Concerto with about ten minutes to spare, I decided to use the remaining time in the session to record the Vocalise, which we had also played on one of the concerts. While we only had time for one take, it was good, and now Vox had two problems.
The first was that Abbey thought the remaining time should have gone to him, although I am not sure what he could have improved on. The second was that the short orchestra piece did not belong on the piano/orchestra set. What could they do with it? I suggested that we start a new cycle, one that would encompass all the composer’s works for orchestra, save for the operas. Vox agreed. So, the last-minute recording of a short six-minute work allowed us to embark on a huge project.
As opposed to most cycles, we included everything—short pieces, symphonic poems, a couple of works that had never been issued on discs, as well as the choral works. The orchestra had the style down to a T, and when it was all completed, we had made nine records, a massive undertaking.
Around thirty years later, I was asked to record Rachmaninov’s orchestral works for Naxos with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. At first, I did not want to do it, as I felt my thoughts on the music had not changed all that much. I was wrong; in the case of one piece, in particular, the tempos are so different from the St. Louis version that one would be hard pressed to believe the same conductor led both performances.
In listening to the two different symphony cycles, I would compare them as follows, with no slight intended on either orchestra.
Symphony No. 1
The timings of each movement are almost identical. I used most of the orchestral alterations made by Ormandy, as the composer’s original is just too naïve, and I believe if Rachmaninov had returned to the work, he would have made substantial changes. The edge on this one goes to Detroit because of the sound quality.
Symphony No. 2
Here was the big surprise: The Detroit recording is more than five minutes quicker than the St. Louis rendition! I find it interesting that the general approach is the same, but I was able to sustain a longer line in the Detroit version. I would take the 2009 recording over the one from 1978 but would still go with the St. Louisans for the slow movement.
Symphony No. 3
Again, like the First Symphony, these performances are about the same in interpretation and timing. This one is a draw.
I might have gone with Detroit if it were not for the fact that my tempo for the final movement is just too fast. It lacks the sinister feeling of the earlier version, so St. Louis wins this round.
Isle of the Dead
Both are good, but this one seems aided by better sound in Detroit. I also believe I sustained the longer line to better effect there.
Aside from the Vocalise, all the other pieces were only done in St. Louis. I love the performance of The Bells but, if I could do it again, I would perform it in Russian. My cue, at the time we recorded it, came from Ormandy’s recording, which was in English.
Rachmaninov’s early works are mostly forgettable, and there was not much I could do to make these student efforts seem better than they are. But the Spring Cantata and Three Russian Songs came out very well, especially with the great bass-baritone Arnold Vokatitis delivering fabulous solo contributions. Admittedly, the early tone poems have had better performances by other conductors.
When I return from Taiwan, I will have a little over a month before my conducting gigs resume in September. Since a high degree of physicality is involved, I plan to get myself to a gym for some light strengthening exercises. While nothing can prepare you for the real thing, hopefully I will be in decent-enough shape to lead orchestras as we head into a new season.
See you next month,