“Six and a half foot of Russian gloom” was Igor Stravinsky’s droll quip about his compatriot Sergei Rachmaninov. Both composers left their native Russia for exile in the United States, but there comparisons end. Where Stravinsky’s spiky neo-classicism and experimental works dazzled the West, Rachmaninov’s remained rooted in his homeland. Many of his compositions are imbued with a deep, Russian melancholy, shot through with flashes of Orthodox chant; he quotes the Dies irae in several of his works: like an idée fixe, it chimes into The Isle of the Dead, the Symphonic Dances, and the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini among other works.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have heard the three symphonies plus all the piano concertos (including original versions of the First and Fourth) during the past 12 months. Few composers pack out a concert hall as easily as Rachmaninov when his Second Symphony or the Second or Third Piano Concertos are programmed. There is also an enormous appetite for his solo piano works (Rachmaninov was one of the very greatest pianists of the 20th century). Here are a few personal selections to mark Rach’s 142nd birthday, including some lesser known gems.

Spring (Vesna) is a cantata for baritone, chorus and orchestra, in which the baritone’s dark marital broodings during winter are swept away by the uplifting return of spring.

Francesca da Rimini

Marital infidelity is also the subject behind two of Rachmaninov’s three operas. Based on an episode in Dante epic poem The Inferno, Francesca da Rimini tells the tale of Francesca’s affair with Paolo, which is uncovered by her husband, Lanceotto. Here’s the gripping finale:

Vespers

The Vespers – or All Night Vigil – is one of the greatest choral works to have emerged from Russia. Few choirs can match the intense Russian sound to be heard here, in the opening call to worship “Priidite, poklonimsya”, in a recording by the State Academic Russian Choir of the USSR, conducted by Alexander Sveshnikov. It was the first recording of the work (Melodiya), but because of anti-religious Soviet laws, was only available via export.

The Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor is one of Rachmaninov’s most well known composiitons, immortalised in films such as Brief Encounter. Here is the first movement in one of the best recordings I know – Tamás Vásáry with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Rachmaninov’s songs – or romances as they are known – are often melancholy in nature. Aside from Tchaikovsky, few Russian composers do melancholy as well as Rachmaninov. From his Op.4 set, Ne poy krasavitsa, pri mne, sung by Anna Netrebko:

Do not sing, my beauty, to me
your sad songs of Georgia;
they remind me
of that other life and distant shore.

Alas, They remind me,
your cruel melodies,
of the steppe, the night and moonlit
features of a poor, distant maiden!

That sweet and fateful apparition
I forget when you appear;
but you sing, and before me
I picture that image anew.

 

In Ona, kak polden', khorosha (Op.14/9) our poet agonises over love, ardently sung by a young Dmitri Hvorostovsky:

She is as beautiful as noon,
She has more enigma than midnight.
Her eyes have never filled with tears,
Her soul has never suffered.

And I, whose life is the one of struggle and sorrow,
I'm destined to long for her. Oh!
So ever the roaring sea
Is in love with the silent shore.

Prelude in C sharp minor

One of Rachmaninov’s most famous works for solo piano, the composer got rather fed up of it being requested. Thankfully, he left a recording in the form of an Ampico piano roll:

Symphonic Dances

Rachmaninov’s final – and arguably his greatest – orchestral work, the Symphonic Dances were written for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, premiered in 1941. The three movements are darkly scored and at times grotesque – there’s a Dies irae quote to spot. The orchestration is a marvel: note the inspired, smoky saxophone (3’34”), the subtle use of piano, the cataclysmic percussion.