Customer Reviews: Harvest of Sorrow - Tony Palmer's Film About Sergei Rachmaninoff
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on August 9, 2007
I saw this film in a commercial-ridden broadcast on the Ovation Channel and enjoyed it, so I expect the commercial-free DVD to be even more attractive. I'm not always a fan of Tony Palmer's bio-pics--like all biographers these days and as his title suggests, he portrays his celebrity subjects as exploited victims, no matter how successful, acclaimed, privileged, and controlling they really were. Here, though, "sorrow" emerges not from villainous parents, impresarios, lovers, capitalists, or fascists, but from the composer's life as a victim of history. Specifically, crushing critical hostility toward his early works and then, just as he settled in as a renowned master composer, the Bolshevik revolution and permanent exile from his beloved homeland. This story is told compellingly and quite objectively, with stirring musical examples and without melodramatic re-enactments. No sign either, thank goodness, of snooty modernist musicologists denouncing Rachmaninoff's music as "kitsch." Some of the photography of the Russian countryside with its birch forests is stunning. I didn't expect that consummate non-Russian John Gielgud to serve well as the voice(-over) of Rachmaninoff, but he turns out to be ideal and very droll, capturing the composer's dourness, frustration with bustling Western society, and nostalgia for the old country and the ancestral estates. Music-lovers and Rachmaninoff-lovers, you ought to see this film.
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on October 23, 2007
This film by Tony Palmer shows performances of Rachmaninoff's works by Valery Gergiev and others. It includes scenes of a Rachmaninoff museum, and places where he lived in Russia. It recounts historical events, his travels and concert tours, and interviews with some of his grandchildren. Best of all it shows many home movie segments where Rachmaninoff is cavorting, smiling, and showing an intimate and surprisingly lighthearted side. Sir John Gielgud gives voice to Rachmaninoff's letters and reminiscences about his life. I don't see how anyone could watch this wonderful film, and not come away loving Rachmaninoff more than ever.
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on November 6, 2007
This video reviews the life and music Rachmaninoff. It is touchingly and movingly done, interspersing first-rate performances of the music with extraordinary film clips of Rachmaninoff at home. Anyone who loves this music must see this magnificently done documentary.
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on April 17, 2009
This documentary is invaluable for the insights into Rachmaninoff the composer and family man offered by the home movies of the Rachmaninoff family, period shots and clips of places where Rachmaninoff lived or was otherwise engaged, the comments and insights of Valery Gergiev and his obvious affinity for the music as evidenced by generous samples of his performances.

Besides Gergiev, we are treated to some superb playing by the likes of Mikhail Pletnev, Alexander Toradze, Valentina Igoshina, the singing of Dmitry Hvorostovsky and others.

Somehow missing is any mention of Rachmaninoff's sojourn in Dresden, that beautiful city, capital of the Kingdom of Saxony that was senselessly (and arguably, criminally) incinerated by the RAF in 1945. Rachmaninoff and his family lived there for 3 years in a rented house on Sidonienstrasse, from the end of 1906 through 1909. He moved to the beautiful Saxon capital to allow himself time and space to work without interruption, and also because of its proximity to Leipzig and its musical life. He much admired the Gewandhaus and its conductor, Arthur Nikisch, whose Tchaikovsky 6th Rachmaninoff described as "... a work of genius. One cannot go beyond this". In Dresden, where he admired the opera, he composed such important works as the Piano Sonata no. 1, the gorgeous 2nd Symphony, the opera Mona Vanna (alas, never finished), some important piano transcriptions and others.

Some may find the breaking, whispery, raspy voice of Sir John Gielgud too distracting, even annoying. I was reminded of Robert Frost's poem "An Old Man's Winter Night". Maybe Rachmaninoff sounded that way in the last days of his life due to terminal illness and the finality of the realization that he was never going to see his beloved Russia again. Some may even approve of Gielgud's doom and gloom approach to speaking for Rachmaninoff. But he was not "6 foot 2 of Russian gloom", as Stravinsky once described him. This is evident from the footage presented and from the vivid testimony of his surviving relatives like that of Sofia Satina, his niece, seen towards the end of this documentary.

He once saw a performance of Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow" and declared it "a work of genius" and that it made him "laugh like a fool". Likewise he laughed silly at Jewish and Armenian jokes. I think that there is a natural inclination in certain societies, particularly a society centered on slick entertainment and trivial pursuits, to commingle the concepts of seriousness with gloom. Rachmaninoff was a serious person, not necessarily a gloomy one.

Sofia Satina also mentions the fascination that church bells held for Rachmaninoff, whose sounds can be spotted in many of his compositions. As a child, he would go to listen to the church bells in the city of Novgorod, near his family home.

True, there is an element of gloom in some of his music like in the "Isle of the Dead", but Rachmaninoff has always been misunderstood (even underrated), especially by music critics. In the 60's and 70's I read more than a few music reviews that were dismissive of his music, presumably for being too musical (i.e., not modern). This one, from the 50's is typical:

<<Technically he was highly gifted, but also severely limited. His music is well constructed and effective, but monotonous in texture, which consists in essence mainly of artificial and gushing tunes accompanied by a variety of figures derived from arpeggios. The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff's works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favor. Eric Blom (ed.) Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1954) vol. 7, p. 27.>>

That is when I learned never to listen to music critics again.

Maybe these days when noise and cacophony pass for art and music, the melodies of Rachmaninoff may be an incongruity or anachronism. At the end of this documentary, Gergiev reminds us of the important contributions to music made by Serge Rachmaninoff with his piano playing and his melodic output and reminds us that it is not easy to create such long melodic lines, some as long as one minute, that manage also to hold the listener's interest and how these resolve into new melodies like doors that open to new wonders. Like in the Hermitage museum, I would add.

If you cannot stand the voice of Gielgud, then turn down the volume when he speaks, but this documentary is a must for all lovers of the music of Serge Rachmaninoff.
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on October 11, 2011
At the end of this film the credits display, "Rachmaninoff's Letters and Other Reminiscences Spoken by Sir John Gielgud." This is an ambiguous statement that implies that the reminiscences are Rachmaninoff's, which they are not. Sir John follows a carefully-wrought script which holds the narrative together quite well, but like many documentaries, it is a combination of truth and fantasy. Many of the remarks sound like things the composer MIGHT have said, or perhaps WOULD have said. But there were (for example) two separate mentions of the composer's relationship with Anna Lodashenskaya, which explained frankly who she was and her role in the First Symphony. The symphony's dedication was simply to "A.L." and the composer, to my knowledge, never spoke to anyone about this for the rest of his life and certainly never revealed the meaning behind this dedication. He buried this episode from his early years completely, only referring to it in a mysterious and entirely musical fashion, as a direct quote of the symphony's main theme, which he inserted--disguised no less--at the end of the first movement of his Symphonic Dances, which was significantly the LAST work of his life. There is no question about the impact that this young woman had on the composer, but the entire story was discovered by biographers long after the composer's death. To imply that these words of explanation came from the composer's mouth is a gross misrepresentation. The film is very well done, but viewers should know that much of the narrative material is fiction; some is undoubtedly fact and quotation from letters, but there is absolutely no way to tell which is which.
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on March 30, 2008
The Harvest of Sorrow is such a compelling DVD, that I have had guests over to watch it on several occasions. All of them have enjoyed it, and have remarked on its quality.
The dialogue mostly follows Rachmaninoff's own letters. Family pictures and news footage give authenticity. Sir John Gielgud actually becomes the older Rachmaninoff as he narrates. The best part of the DVD, though, is the way the music is handled.
There is no slipshod insertion of themes to grab the listener's attention (without actually getting into the music) as one might expect. The works are performed, if not in their entirity, in longer sections, and correspond to the filming. Gergiev and the other musicians speak to the hearts of listeners.
One cannot help but appreciate the historical background covered in the composer's lifespan -- late 19th century to 1943. This DVD is perfect for the person who appreciates accuracy and artistic ability in filming. It is also a tribute to a great composer, and a great man.
Music Enthusiast
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on March 2, 2008
This is a very nicely produced story of Rachmaninoff's life and work, with charming home-movie footage and period pictures. It really brought home Rachmaninoff's musical genius and also his sadness because he could not return to his beloved homeland. The musical pieces are played and sung by excellent artists who understand and convey the beauty of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Romantic style.
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on April 23, 2015
There are so many romantic and inspiring stories about Rachmaninoff; his love for his cousin that continued for many years despite the Russian Orthodox Church's refusal to allow them to marry and their eventual and enduring marriage, his nervous breakdown and the therapy that resulted in his most famous work the 2nd Piano Concerto (my favorite piece of music). But this film picked one rumored, short term sordid affair and blew it all out of proportion and missed the whole essence of his life. It wasn't enjoyable, enlightening, or informative. I was so disappointed.
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on October 16, 2014
This movie is a winner in many ways- especially w Gergiev and the home movies. Unfortunately- it's the only biographical one- altho there are several good dvds of R performances.
I visited Ivanovka this last summer (2014) and collect R first editions. Have written on R muchly- love to hear fr other fanatics- dave in Baltimore at or on face book. R my favorite composer- can make me- a man- weep copiously. It's in that Chopinesque "zal"- the blue note harmonies. If you go- check in with Director Bazilien at the Tambov Conservatory (the city of Tambov will be your base if you visit Ivanovka).
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on September 25, 2015
I have performed and taught Rachmaninoff compositions for all of my life; so this film was especially meaningful to see the places where he lived and composed. It was wonderful to see the old films of him and also other important Russians who lived during his day. A must see for any lover of Rachmaninoff music.
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