Rachmaninov originally composed Vocalise for voice and piano, a wordless song that overflows with emotion. It was written for a star of the Moscow Grand Opera, Antonina Nezhdanova, who was at first dismayed by the lack of poetic text. How to bring the work to life without the instructions and direction that words provide?! The composer replied: “What need is there for words, when you will be able to convey everything better and more expressively than anyone could with words by your voice and interpretation?”
The same is true of instruments, each possessing their own unique voice rich in personality. Rachmaninov realised this and, three years after the original, made his own arrangement for symphony orchestra. In the century since, Vocalise has provided inspiration for a huge range of instruments and genres and still today offers seemingly endless scope for new takes on a classical great. The same DNA underpins them all, but each provides a different face to the music.
We’ve collected together a small selection here, starting with:
1) Where it all began: Voice and piano
The original, in which Rachmaninov gives the singer the freedom to choose their favourite vowel and run with it. Singing here is regular Southbank Sinfonia collaborater Ilona Domnich.
2) Four mallets: Solo marimba
A sparse arrangement but rich in tone, the beautiful marimba is the percussion world’s closest match to the human voice. It’s also a nightmare to fit in the orchestra van.
3) Heavy metal: Tuba
That’s weight rather than genre, featuring the beast of the brass section. But the tuba offers so much more than just rumbling low notes in big brassy fanfares. Much like its string equivalent, the double bass, it has a beautiful voice that is sadly rarely heard in solo form.
4) Slash: Electric guitar
Better known for songs like Sweet Child O’ Mine, Slash gives Vocalise the Guns N’ Roses treatment. Cue electric guitars, drums and improv solos.
5) Light metal: Flute choir
And now for something completely different, Andy Findon’s arrangement for multiple flutes.
6) Back to Rach: Orchestra
To bring us full circle, here’s Rachmaninov’s luscious arrangement for orchestra that we’ll be performing with Vladimir Ashkenazy later this month at London’s Cadogan Hall.
Southbank Sinfonia will be performing Rachmaninov’s Vocalise alongside his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony on Wednesday 25 March. To find out more and book tickets – starting from just £10 – click here.