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Category:    Home > Reviews > Biography > Documentary > Telefilm > Classical Music > Rachmaninoff - The Harvest of Sorrow (Kultur/Classical Music/Documentary)

Rachmaninoff -  The Harvest of Sorrow (Kultur/Classical Music Documentary)


Picture: B-     Sound: B-     Extras: D     Film: B-



Originally produced for British television, this documentary on the life and works of Sergei Rachmaninoff is variously known by its eponymous title and also its subtitle, The Harvest of Sorrow (you’ll find it listed in IMDB under the later).  A second subtitle, The Memoirs of Sergei Rachmaninoff, in fact, appears in the opening credits of the film and the bulk of the narrative is based on the memoirs and letters of the composer himself.


Known as the last great Romantic composer and influenced by the great Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff's career divides distinctly into two parts: his fruitful years of composition before fleeing his beloved Russia and his subsequent years largely lived out as a performer.  The harvest of sorrow of the title refers to his years of self-imposed exile and his nostalgic longing for the motherland.


Rachmaninoff's early life and training are duly, if rather briefly, noted, and his career, with both early success and early failure, is documented.  We see and hear of his much loved country home, Ivanovka, idyllic for composition, later ransacked by the Bolsheiviks during the First World War and recreated as a museum showplace during Perestrokia.  The story is narrated by Sir John Gielgud and intercut with performances of various works, conducted by Valery Gergiev with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theater.


The reception and appeal of Rachmaninoff's works are discussed; he himself comments that he writes music for the heart and not the mind, lamenting his inability to understand and appreciate modern contemporary music of the coming era.  As such, he was something of a man out of time, but a popular one.  The general public loved his music and his years of performance allowed him to live well, although he was left with little time for creative composition.


The documentary itself is a blend of archival footage, home movies, interviews, narrative, memoir and performance.  Despite the efforts of director Tony Palmer, Rachmaninoff has the feel of the many documentaries you fell asleep watching during sixth period in middle school.  Well-intentioned, yes, but there is little to make this come alive.  The problems are myriad.  Sad as it is to say, Sir John Gielgud narration is subpar; whether it is the mic-ing, his voice or his delivery, or a combination of these elements, there is frequent unintelligibility and, since no subtitles are provided, some things are lost.   The intercutting of performance and narrative is a standard technique in music documentary and is here, as is often the case, occasionally jarring and sometimes illogical.  There seems to be an effort to infuse a biographical chronology into some of the selections, to inform the running narrative and at others the selections seem haphazard.  The result is the feel that two separate films have been spliced together, sometimes to moderate effect and, at others, to the detriment of the overall film.


Separately the musical interludes are enjoyable in and of themselves.  Included are excerpts from Symphonies #1, #2 and #3, Piano Concertos No. 2 & 3, Rhapsody on a Theme from Paganini, Variations on a Theme from Corelli, Symphonic Dances, the Isle of the Dead, Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and Songs from Aleko.  Also, there are complete performances of the Prelude in C# Minor, the Prelude in B Minor, the Prelude in G Minor, the songs A Dream, and Christ is Risen and songs from A Miserly King. The stylized filming of the performances is bemusing and is a contributing factor to the feeling of disjunction between narrative and performance.


In addition, Rachmaninoff's grandson, Alexander Rachmaninoff, is seen returning to the reconstructed country estate.  His is the place of honor in a reception and tour at "Ivanovka," complete with local functionaries and a choral group dedicated to his grandfather's music.  Though this, no doubt, resonates with the people involved, it has an unfortunate plasticity about it that leaves the viewer slightly put off.  The staged aspect of the return to Russia feels false in a way that it should not.


As documentary, Rachmaninoff rarely rises above the ordinary and only then when the composer's own words directly engage the viewer.  It is an adequate introduction to the man and his work, especially for the novice or the Rachmaninoff devotee.  For those in between, there are always the ubiquitous recordings of his classic works available for a deeply moving experience of music that speaks directly to the heart.



-   Don Wentworth


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