Rachmaninov: The Harvest of Sorrow: a Tony Palmer film

COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Warner
ALBUM TITLE: Rachmaninov
WORKS: The Harvest of Sorrow: a Tony Palmer film
PERFORMER: Alexander Rachmaninoff, John Gielgud; Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Mikhail Pletnev; Berlin PO/Claudio Abbado; Mariinsky Theatre Ch & O/Valery Gergiev
CATALOGUE NO: 564 69883-3 (NTSC system; PCM stereo; 16:9 picture ratio)
Some of Tony Palmer’s films, on Parsifal and Turandot for example, stray too near the Ken Russell tripeworks for my taste. This one, though, made as long ago as 1998, is firmly unsensational, and all the better for it. Wisely relying on the composer’s own words and films, punctuated musically by Gergiev, Abbado, Pletnev and excellent soloists, it does this complex character great service, not least in confirming that Stravinsky’s notorious jibe – ‘six-foot scowl’ – is utterly unfair. His niece recalls that he loved ‘Armenian and Jewish humour’, rocking with laughter at new jokes – easily believable of the affable Saville Row-clad boulevardier who strolls through home movies among his adored and adoring family. The dark splendour so characteristic of his music seems to have been preference rather than compulsion, though intensified by his three-year breakdown after his First Symphony failed.

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His outlook seriously darkened when Bolshevik predations drove him into rootless exile, looting and burning his beloved home; thereafter he composed much less, claiming to be exhausted by his fierce (but lucrative) concert schedule. Under perestroika we see his grandson welcomed back to the house, reconstructed by the Soviets with ironic enthusiasm.

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Rachmaninov died in America in 1943, already being relegated to ‘kitsch’ by the serialist bullies. The excerpts here, though infuriatingly short, demolish that label as firmly as the film humanises its subject. My only cavil is that Gielgud’s orotund, creaky sibilance sounds quite wrong for the clipped, sardonic composer. Michael Scott Rohan