Grief encounter

Music byDermot Clinch

The best thing about Sergey Rachmaninoff: memories, a new documentary directed by Tony Palmer, is the home-movie footage. This comes courtesy of the composer's grandson, and shows the man Stravinsky described as a "six-and-a-half foot scowl" blowing smoke rings into the summer air, dancing around in circles, and gladly suffering young female relatives to come up behind him and shriek the Russian for "Boo!" into his entirely suspecting ears.

Does Stravinsky's sour observation stand contradicted by black-and-white verite? Or do home movies necessarily focus on the happy day and the forced smile? Rachmaninov's answer was that a composer's music is the source of truth: it should express "the country of his birth, his religion, his love affairs . . . it should be the sum total of his experience". Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard on the station platform, with steam billowing about their heads and the Second Concerto on the soundtrack, got it right. The retreat and sobbing return of the theme in the Second Symphony's slow movement is to be believed. Rachmaninov was sad. It is why we love him.

Palmer's film begins at the Finland Station in St Petersburg. Lenin has arrived; the composer is about to depart; there is steam but no Second Concerto. Instead we hear the soulful quavering of Sir John Gielgud: "I am burdened with a harvest of sorrow . . . One place, and one place only remains close to me, the place where I was born . . . I was born in Russia." Cue - in accordance with a stylistic gear-change we will come to recognise as characteristic - a Russian march and a once brighter world. Gay peasants thread meat on festive skewers; fields of wheat lie as far as the eye can see; fine times beckon among the haystacks.

Rachmaninov's was not a happy life. His father squandered the family estates. He was exiled. He found America, disliked it, left it. The film's swings, between aching nostalgia and frantic affirmation, are authentic. He built bliss on the shores of Lake Lucerne, naming his new home after his own initials and his wife's, only for Hitler to startle him back to America. The older he got - as Gielgud mournfully tells us, in the composer's mournful words - the fewer were the moments when he believed that what he had done was any good.

For years in exile, Rachmaninov composed nothing. He earned a good living playing the piano better than everyone except his friend Horowitz. But the late Third Symphony, Paganini Rhapsody, Symphonic Dances, when they came, were among his best works. The Dies Irae ran threateningly through the Rhapsody and the Dances, suggesting that a muted religion offered some late balance, an escape from the torment of exile. As Palmer's sensitive but artistically incurious documentary suggests, nostalgia was the perspective from which Rachmaninov viewed himself, and it is the evident soul of his music.

The film is premiered on 9 May at the Rachmaninov festival, "Hidden Perspectives", currently being held at London's South Bank. A pair of outstanding new CD releases offer a preview. On Deutsche Gramophon, Mikhail Pletnev performs a recital on the composer's own Steinway at the Villa Senar overlooking Lake Lucerne, playing Rachmaninov's own work, as well as pieces by Beethoven, Chopin and Mendelssohn that he performed in public. Pletnev's playing is an act of hommage. Rachmaninov is executed in a style - lucid and hard - of which the composer would have been proud. Pletnev plays the Paganini Rhapsody at the Festival Hall on 16 May.

The revelation, though, is an old, cleaned-up reissue on Naxos Records, which, like all that label's releases, is also gratifyingly cheap. On two CDs, available separately, the composer plays his own works for piano and orchestra. Know the opening theme of the Third Concerto as slow, gentle, tentatively unwinding? Then pause for breath and hear the composer take it at a percussive allegro trot: neither pure nostalgia nor pure delight, but something creditably, cleverly in between.

"Hidden Perspectives" runs at the Royal Festival Hall, London, from 6-23 May. Ring 0171-921 0600 for tickets