Dir: Tony Palmer | UK Doc, 102′
Tony Palmer’s extensive documentary about one of the world’s most loved composers (1873-1943) is a vibrant memoire, enlivened by musical interludes and ample archive footage of his life and times in Russia, Sweden and the United States where he finally died in 1943, unable to return to his beloved homeland: “a ghost wandering forever in the world”.
Playing out as a long autobiographical letter to his daughters Tatiana and Irina, voiced by Gielgud in slightly sardonic but wistful tone, the film covers the composer’s life until his final months in New York. But it starts at a low point, with the Rachmaninoff family leaving Russia in 1917, escaping from the Bolshevik devastation of Petrograd (soon to be Leningrad) set for musical adventures in Stockholm, and thence to America. Desperate about leaving his homeland, the composer also felt at a low ebb creatively: “Nowadays I am never satisfied with myself, I am burdened with a harvest of sorrow: I almost never feel that what I do is successful”.
Quite the opposite: Rachmaninoff would become a celebrated figure, but a very private man who would tell interviewers: “if you want to know me, listen to my music”. Avoiding the intellectual approach, he wanted his music “to go direct to the heart, bypassing the brain”. Remembered by his niece, Sofia Satina, as a happy, tall, elegantly dressed gentleman who loved his Savile Row suits and driving his car, he was never wealthy, and ironically ended his days as a concert pianist playing for money until his fingers were literally bruised, to maintain his family during gruelling tours of the United States, which he hated: “now I play without joy, just mechanically”. His friend Igor Stravinsky remembered him in those times as “a six-foot scowl”.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in Moscow to a musical family, taking up the piano from the age of four and gaining a place at the Conservatoire whence he graduated at nineteen, having already composed several orchestral and piano pieces. Although he dreamed of the Mariinsky Theatre, his philandering father broke the family up and Rachmaninov started his career with family in Moscow where he became friendly with Tchaikovsky, the last of Russian Romantics, and the two formed a close friendship. But the composer was always most at home in the small town of Ivanovka, where he spent his summers as a young boy, and his grandson is seen returning here in an exhaustive sequence that pictures the refurbished family home – a fairytale blue and white wooden clad affair (destroyed by the Bolsheviks) during celebrations to honour the musical legend. It was in Ivanovka that local folkloric musicians became a big influence on the young composer, along with the Russian Orthodox chants. He is also know for his fugal writing, which is even more of a throwback to the classical era.
It took Rachmaninoff until the late 1890s to free himself from his friend and idol Tchaikovsky. He is best classified as a neo-romantic, in the style of Bruckner and Mahler, but in reality he is much closer to Elgar. The distinguishing feature of intra-tonal chromaticism runs through the whole of Rachmaninoff’s work. He is also known for his widely spaced chords, used in the Second Symphony ‘The Bells’. But towards the end he was less concerned with melody, his emotional and impressionistic style is best experienced in the 39 Etudes Tableaux, which is a deeply affecting rollercoaster.
The other important contributor to the film is conductor and composer Valery Gergiev (Widowmaker) who is seen at work in the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg. It was Rachmaninoff himself who said that his life had been ‘a harvest of sorrow’, and Tony Palmer certainly brings that poignancy to bear in this deeply affecting film bringing the spirit of Rachmaninoff alive. MT
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