The 1897 premiere of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 1 was one of the most notorious disasters in classical music. The composer, sensing that misfortune was about to befall him and his newest creation, sat not in the audience but backstage (‘squirming,’ according to his cousin Lyudmila Skalon) in what is now the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Hall.
The fault appears to have lain not in the music itself, but with conductor Alexander Glazunov, who did not devote sufficient rehearsal time for the demanding new symphony, and who appeared to have no sympathy or enthusiasm whatsoever for it. (Some have gone so far as to suggest that he was drunk at the concert. According to ‘Testimony’, Dmitri Shostakovich’s memoirs ‘as related to’ Solomon Volkov, Glazunov had a severe problem with alcohol.) During rehearsals, Glazunov conducted ‘apathetically’ and ‘in a state of complete indifference,’ in spite of the composer’s attempts to intervene and rouse him from his funk.
An eyewitness at the general rehearsal and at the premiere itself wrote, ‘The performance was raw, unthought-out, unfinished, and it produced the impression of a slovenly play-through and not of the realisation of a definite artistic idea, which the conductor clearly lacked. […] The torpid character of the conductor completed the whole agonising ghastliness of the impression.’ (Quotations are taken from Barrie Martyn’s 1990 biography: ‘Rachmaninoff: composer, pianist, conductor’).
Unsurprisingly, the symphony, if it made any impression at all on listeners, made a very negative one. Composer and critic César Cui wrote, ‘If there were a conservatory in Hell, if one of its talented students were instructed to write a program symphony on the “Seven Plagues of Egypt”, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninov’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell.’
Ouch! Rachmaninov was so taken aback by the experience – he was ‘a changed man’ in his own words – that he nearly destroyed all traces of the score. It was not played again during his lifetime, and it was published after his death in 1947 only because the original orchestral parts were found. For two years after the disastrous premiere, the composer wrote almost nothing, and occupied himself by conducting opera in Moscow and concertising at home and abroad. It was only through hypnotherapy provided by the oft-mentioned Dr. Dahl that Rachmaninov was able to remove his mental block and compose the Piano Concerto No. 2, but that, as they say, is another story. Even today, the symphony lags behind its two successors in popularity, but it is an admirable work and it in no way deserved nearly 50 years of oblivion after its premiere. Indeed, there are those – including composer Robert Simpson – who rate it as the best among his three symphonies.
Rachmaninov was in his early 20s in 1895 when he began work on this symphony. Despite his youth, he had already graduated from the Moscow Conservatory several years before. A quotation from the Bible, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord’ appeared on the title page of the symphony’s original manuscript. One wonders what horrible deed Rachmaninov must have committed in his youth to be repaid with such a disaster! What guilty feelings were pursuing him? The composer, as yet unmarried, dedicated the symphony to Anna Lodyzhenskaya, a femme fatale of gypsy origins and the wife of a friend. It has been suggested that Rachmaninov’s feelings for Lodyzhenskaya might have been more than platonic. This suggestion becomes even more powerful when one remembers that the very same quote also appears at the head of literary work whose central themes are passion and betrayal. Its name – Anna Karenina. Tellingly, the Dies irae, the ancient plain-chant dealing with the Day of Judgment, made its first of many guest appearances in Rachmaninov’s music in the Symphony No. 1.
If the First Symphony’s original title page bears an indirect link to a novel by Leo Tolstoy, Rachmaninov’s orchestral fantasy ‘The Rock’ (1893) bears a similar link to a poem by Mikhail Lermontov. The title page reads:
‘The little golden cloud slept
Upon the breast of the giant rock’
But again, all might not be what it appears to be: Rachmaninov later claimed that his real inspiration was not Lermontov, but Anton Chekhov – specifically, Chekhov’s short story ‘On the Road’, where Lermontov’s same words serve as an epigraph. In this story, an experienced and disillusioned older man (the rock) encounters a young woman (the cloud) at a wayside inn during a Christmas Eve snowstorm. He tells her of his disappointments and extols the feminine virtues of fidelity and forgiveness. She is moved, and for a moment the man permits himself to hope that his life finally has been given meaning. The next morning, however, the woman continues on her own separate journey, and he continues on his. Just as in Lermontov’s poem, the cloud leaves the rock as lonely as he was before. (Some years later, Rachmaninov presented Chekhov with a copy of the score and acknowledged his debt to the writer.)
When Rachmaninov’ conducted ‘The Rock’ in England in 1899, critics found much fault with it. One complained of ‘small, ill-nourished themes’ which ‘creep about in apologetic half-tones’; another commented that ‘The Rock’ could not hold a candle to Elgar’s ‘Caractacus’– a comparison which distinctly smells of apples and oranges, to say nothing of blind patriotism. A writer from ‘The Times’ sniffed, ‘It would not necessitate a journey far beyond the four-mile radius from Charing Cross to find a musical composition as nearly “great” as the orchestral fantaisie in E major.’
Modern writers have scarcely been more kind. In his monograph on the composer, Geoffrey Norris writes, ‘Despite some skilful orchestration, ‘The Rock’ is a work of fragmentary thematic ideas which are not among Rachmaninov’s finest, and some occur with monotonous frequency.’ On the other hand, Tchaikovsky, whose opinion the young Rachmaninov greatly respected, was very enthusiastic about ‘The Rock’, and expressed his desire to conduct it – a desire which was not to be granted, as the elder composer died just a few months after the score’s Moscow premiere.
Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13
The Rock: Fantasia, Op. 7
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande 
London Philharmonic Orchestra 
Recording producers: John Mordler (Symphony); Christopher Raeburn (The Rock)
Recording engineers: James Lock (Symphony); James Lock, John Dunkerley (The Rock)
Recording locations: Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland, August 1972 (Symphony); Kingsway Hall, London, England, October 1974 (The Rock)
‘Highly volatile and arrestingly dramatic … a fine Rachmaninov disc’ ClassicsToday.com