Klassik Heute 10/10/10, February 2013.
The programme on this disc includes Rachmaninov's last work, the Symphonic Dances (1941) as well as The Rock, his first published orchestral work, but opens with The Isle of the Dead from 1909. Inspired by the painting of the same name by Arnold Böcklin, Rachmaninov based almost the entire thematic material on the four-note figure which stalks through so much of his music: the first notes of the plainchant setting of the Dies iræ, describing the terrors of the Last Judgement. The motif was Rachmaninov’s musical symbol for death – an ever-present spectre, sometimes feared, sometimes welcomed – and it impregnates the whole fabric of The Isle of the Dead.
If The Rock, inspired by an image from a short story by Chekhov, is a youthful work by a composer just turned twenty, the Symphonic Dances, written almost 50 years later, sum up a lifetime’s musical and emotional experience. The title of the work doesn't reveal a programme of any kind, but when Rachmaninov suggested it to the choreographer Mikhail Fokine as the score for a possible ballet, he explained that its three movements followed the sequence Midday – Twilight – Midnight, possibly a description of life's journey from youth through middle age to old age.
Andrew Litton and his Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra have already proven their skills in the Russian repertoire, with recordings of music by Stravinsky (‘If you're looking for a freshly painted Petrushka or a Rite to shake you up a bit, this is shockingly good’, International Record Review) and Prokofiev (‘An exceptional Romeo and Juliet, to be placed right next to the great ones’, Crescendo).