By Lawrence Budmen

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was the last great composer of the Russian romantic tradition. Even as the world of Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and Glazunov gave way to the modernism of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff continued to write in the grand Romantic manner - a fountain of inspired melody and compositional rigor. Rachmaninoff wrote "A composer's music should express the country of his birth, his love affairs, his religion…it should be the sum total of the composer's experiences. I compose music because I must give expression to my feelings, just as I talk because I must give utterance to my thoughts…I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has inevitably influenced my temperament and outlook." After leaving Russia in 1918, Rachmaninoff composed only five scores: the "Piano Concerto No.4," "Three Russian Folk Songs," the "Corelli Variations," the Third Symphonies, and his valedictory work the "Symphonic Dances." Rachmaninoff was highly active as a piano virtuoso in America and Europe, but exile was not conducive to his creativity. When he died in Beverly Hills, California on March 28, 1943, Rachmaninoff had been a musical force on the world concert scene for five decades. 

After completing his Third Symphony, Rachmaninoff waited four years before beginning work on his swan song - the "Symphonic Dances," Opus 41. The composer's first version of the score was for two pianos. The more familiar orchestral version was premiered in January, 1941 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, to whom the score is dedicated. Remarking on the score's initial success, Rachmaninoff stated "I don't know how it happened. It must have been my last spark." The first movement Non allegro is highly syncopated - perhaps an oblique reference to American jazz. This rhythmic movement is in sonata form (as in a symphony or sonata). The Andante con motto (Tempo di Valse) is a haunting, beguiling waltz - a loving homage to Tchaikovsky and Glazunov and the composer's Russian heritage. The final movement is introduced by a Lento, followed by a darkly dramatic Allegro vivace. Throughout his career, Rachmaninoff often alluded to the Dies Irae in his music. Here that motif becomes the thematic basis of much of this final movement. In many ways, the "Symphonic Dances" is a summary of Rachmaninoff's creative spirit. 

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was one of music's great tonal colorists. He was associated with "The Five" - composers who believed in overtly nationalistic expression in their compositions. In "Scheherazade" (composed in 1887-88) Rimsky-Korsakov turned to "Tales of the Arabian Nights" for inspiration. At the time, the exoticism of the Far East and the neighboring cultures of Islam were all the rage among Russia's creative artists. In his preface to the published score, the composer wrote "The Sultan Schahriar, persuaded of the falseness and faithlessness of women, has sworn to put to death each one of his wives after the first night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by interesting him in tales which she told him during one thousand and one nights. Pricked by curiosity, the Sultan put off his wife's execution from day to day, and last gave up his bloody plan. Many marvels were told Schahriar by the Sultana Scheherazade. For her stories, the Sultana borrowed from poets their verses, from folk songs their words, and she strung together tales and adventures." Rimsky-Korsakov's original intention was to label the movements 1.Prelude, 2.Ballade, 3.Adagio, and 4.Finale. On the advice of the composer Anatol Liadov, he gave the movements programmatic titles which he later withdrew. In his autobiography "My Musical Life" the composer emphasizes that the music is not meant to be a literal depiction of any of the Arabian Nights tales. Rather he sought to set a mood that recreates the Asian and Persian milieu of the stories. Thematic material from one movement recurs in later sections. The two piano transcription by Francesco Libetta received its premiere in July, 2003 at the Miami International Piano Festival in Lecce, Italy. Libetta's transcription is a kaleidoscope of pianistic color. This brilliant reinvention of a symphonic classic is a work of genius! 

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