Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2 – which recording is best?

David Gutman
Thursday, March 12, 2015

Premiered in 1908, it was almost 70 years before Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony came in from the cold, finds David Gutman

Despite composing in what the musicologist Richard Taruskin teasingly labels a ‘new stile antico’, Rachmaninov now looks like a major symphonist. At the London Proms, this least confrontational, most ‘conservative’ of his works in the form has been scheduled 13 times since his centenary year. Just two outings predate 1973. Reacting to 1924’s performance, Gramophone regular WR Anderson condemned music which ‘though it contains dozens of skilful openings, does so little with any of them…and generally spends its substance to surprisingly little profit’. Unabridged accounts were rare until the step change associated with André Previn’s LSO. For older Brits it can be difficult to listen beyond their 1973 recording. Even in the United States, where Rachmaninov enjoyed a more respectable profile, Leopold Stokowski may have been unique in rendering the score uncut, as at the Hollywood Bowl in 1946 (Music & Arts, 7/94).

Rachmaninov’s scores are frugal with expressive indicators, unlike Elgar’s or Mahler’s. We know he required a high degree of rhythmic definition: marcato is a frequent injunction. But how much interpretative flexibility did this much-travelled musician anticipate as a matter of course (unmarked gear changes being routinely favoured by native Russians even today)? Was he really happy with the glitzier, more cushioned Philadelphia style?

How helpful is the recent vogue for including the first-movement exposition repeat? For the composer John Pickard this nod to Classical convention ‘tautologically undermines the dramatic impact not only of the first movement but of the symphony as a whole’. In another league of self-harm is the attitude of the composer’s estate which in our own century backed Alexander Warenberg’s refashioning of the score into a 43-minute ‘fifth’ Rachmaninov piano concerto.

Rachmaninov’s reception history is full of paradoxes. His essential Russianness wowed the Soviets even when his notes were set down abroad. Premiered on January 26, 1908, the Second Symphony was written mainly in Dresden. It won the coveted Glinka Prize in the year Scriabin took second place with the Poem of Ecstasy but, as noted by Rachmaninov’s biographer Geoffrey Norris, its true stature was ‘obscured for decades’ by those excisions. Josef Stránsk≥, Mahler’s successor at the New York Philharmonic, claimed approval for 29 of them. The earliest recording, made by Nikolai Sokoloff in 1928 (digitally transferred for the Cleveland Orchestra’s 75th-anniversary limited edition), lasts 46 minutes. Artur Rodzinski and Dimitri Mitropoulos trim similarly in their 1940s sets although, given Rachmaninov’s passivity about the whole business, no standard template existed. Even the manuscript he prepared for the printer was long thought lost.

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Inside the Second Symphony

Like the First and Third, the Second Symphony opens with a motto theme, here expanded into a slow introduction establishing what most see as the work’s trademark sonority, dark, yearning, strings to the fore. Recalling the bad old days, an inauthentic timpani thwack on the movement’s final unison E on cellos and basses still resounds all too often. The argument having been initiated by those instruments, it makes better sense to end with their gruff sforzando unadorned.

The second movement invokes startling contrasts. A brilliant scherzo precedes a section whose broad molto cantabile melody is unexpected in context and sumptuous in effect, the indicated phrasing suggesting some degree of portamento. There follows a loud crash and an aggressive fugato episode, a repeat and a final shadowy harking back: an ABA‑C‑ABA structure, almost a third of which was conventionally hacked away until the 1970s, the big tune coming only once. The Adagio was also pruned back.

Launched in festive vein, the finale continues with a march-like episode and a thrusting lyrical efflorescence determined to break the mould of stepwise melodic motion. Plentiful reminiscence leads to a tintinnabular cascade across different sections of the orchestra (again sometimes missing). When the aspiring idea finally returns in heavily scored triumph it should not be heralded by a cymbal clash. Neither is there any explicit invitation to slow down. Like so many symphonic finales, this is the weakest of the four movements, tempting even those Russians hitherto dependable to wield the knife.

Sixty years of recordings

A great performance should banish doubts, combining emotional and structural inevitability with a clean text. For the first three movements, the search feels over before it has begun. Kurt Sanderling’s mono recording, expertly engineered in Berlin rather than Leningrad/St Petersburg, makes no cuts in the middle movements and two tiny snips in the first are easily missed. That its parting shot is scarcely come scritto matters less when line and colour have been so magically varied. Not that there is any lack of heft in the string desks of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Sadly things deteriorate in the finale, sedate even before the coup de grâce of a particularly substantial cut (from 9'35"). Refusing to restore that, Sanderling plumps perversely for the first-movement repeat in his sluggish Philharmonia remake. No matter. His 1956 effort will always be a thriller.

Eugene Ormandy includes most of what Sanderling removes there but much less of the rest in Minneapolis, 1934 (HMV, 10/35). Of his four subsequent Philadelphia recordings, the most celebrated dates from 1959, its sumptuous, burnished string tone already evoking a bygone age. The maestro finally recorded the urtext in the 1970s (RCA, 4/76), a version rather less responsive to the finer points. A backsliding 1979 concert relay finds the cameras panning over swathes of pasted-over orchestral parts. With sonic glamour atrophying into a homogeneous block, there are no real pianissimos. Ormandy looks bored.

Analogue LPs under William Steinberg (Capitol, 6/55, and a 1961 remake for Command Classics), Adrian Boult (RCA, 10/57), Alexander Gauk (Westminster, 8/58), Paul Paray (Mercury, 2/60) and Alfred Wallenstein (MFP, 1/66) were variously truncated. Like Sanderling, Boult reprises the scherzo’s second theme. Back in the USSR in 1968 Evgeni Svetlanov, more confident and assertive, marshals great waves of emotion (steadied in his later readings) which recall the incendiary waywardness of Nikolai Golovanov (Boheme, 1/01). There is much to be said for such powerhouse music-making even if the results are garish and the slashed fabric makes little sense as symphonic discourse. A 1993 Philharmonia encounter is less consistently engaged.

The revolution might have come with Paul Kletzki’s 1967 taping with the Suisse Romande Orchestra. Decca’s sound engineering flatters its sonority in the opening bars. However, dodgy wind tuning proves less easily stage-managed and the nervy interpretation tends to obscure the structural gains to be made from opening out the cuts. Every note is here but there are too many bad choices. Toppling into the finale’s lyrical peroration without ceremony (or unsolicited cymbal crash), Kletzki has the worst of both worlds, slowing down partway through the apotheosis and torpedoing its cumulative power. Some listeners may be thrilled by the roller-coaster ride. It left me exhausted.

André Previn’s first LSO recording (RCA, 11/66) is generally forgotten. Only after the orchestra’s 1971 visit to Russia and the Far East were the last excisions dropped. Robert Hill, clarinettist on the tour, was playing with the LPO by the time the LSO returned to the recording studio in January 1973, appearing instead on Walter Weller’s rival account. Both ensembles sound committed but Previn’s less frenetic tempo elicits cleaner rhythmic definition in the scherzo, whose big tune now comes twice with its dash of Hollywoodish portamento. Under Previn everything feels that bit tighter. True, the recording’s soft-grained, saturated string sound is too much for some tastes, notwithstanding the band’s evident sincerity and refinement. Where Hill had navigated the Adagio’s endless cantilena with ease, Jack Brymer does so now with unparalleled subtlety. Rachmaninov’s unusually detailed markings confirm that here at least he rejected plainer, less inflected treatment. EMI’s sound engineering has dated a little but the interpretation retains its legendary emotional charge. Previn’s sonically superior retread for Telarc is slower, darker, almost Brahmsian. Incidentally, the conductor did not always adopt a drastic unmarked allargando into the work’s clinching lyrical climax. Might his more urgent Salzburg Festival relay survive on tape?

By now the floodgates were opening, though few releases retain such a firm place in listeners’ affections. Edo de Waart’s recording is one unexpected survivor, presumably on sonic grounds. Semyon Bychkov’s musically superior version for the same label (Philips, 9/91) is long gone. Other notable absentees include James Loughran (CFP, 9/74) and Andrew Litton (Virgin, 5/90), the latter an early advocate of the first-movement exposition repeat. There were two complete renditions from the unpredictable Yuri Temirkanov (EMI, 11/78 and RCA 9/94), currently represented by a raw, textually dodgy concert recording. Kyrill Kondrashin’s sonically challenged live relay is also cut.

Not so Vladimir Ashkenazy’s faithful studio version with the same, Concertgebouw Orchestra. This remains competitive, at once red-blooded and light on its feet, with a particularly vivacious scherzo, its molto cantabile less schmaltzy than Previn’s. Then again, the Adagio’s clarinet solo is relatively bald, with some digital glare on the massed strings. The placement of instrumental choirs in a big acoustic seems rather woozy now. If you are wedded to physical format, be aware that the Double Decca transfer splits the work between discs. The conductor revisited it as part of his Sydney Rachmaninov Festival.

Close-miking creates an impression of heartless ferocity as the late Lorin Maazel drives the Berlin Philharmonic through what must have been unfamiliar fare. And the great technician claimed to have developed a passion for the composer. There’s more give and take from Mariss Jansons’s Philharmonia in the over-resonant All Saints, Tooting. Jansons’s St Petersburg version is generally preferable, his rubato more intuitively understood by the players. A pity the full score still comes with rough edges and percussive extras. Like the Russians, Jansons has the slow introduction start broadly only to push on with a volatility that can make the music seem less cogent. Brightly caught by a Western recording team in a Moscow film studio, Pavel Kogan delivers the same kind of gutsiness.

Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, with the LSO in 1988 (Tooting again but better handled), may have been the first to include the first-movement repeat. The ‘Russian soul’ of this distinctive reading – dark, never garish, undeniably ponderous in places – just about carries you through its 66 minutes. Owain Arwel Hughes, broader still, cannot muster comparable intensity.

From the early 1990s comes Tadaaki Otaka’s first account. Spacious sound foregrounds the strings, the music-making sounds attractively unforced, the finale notably well-paced. More innovative is David Zinman’s carefully prepared Baltimore disc in which the conductor embraces a high incidence of old-fashioned portamento (that irksome timpani stroke is not banished). The results may appear contrived rather than heartfelt but I don’t hear the slides as merely pasted on. Lan Shui seems more precious in his insistence on ‘swoopy’ strings at salient points, perhaps because his orchestra has a leaner sound. That Zinman’s then Telarc label should have sanctioned blander alternatives from Jésus López-Cobos and Paavo Järvi is symptomatic of an age of over-production, of arguments decently articulated, never quite taking wing.

When in 1993 Decca sought to recreate the satin sophistication of Ormandy’s Philadelphia sound under Charles Dutoit the results lacked idiomatic urgency (and idiomatic rubato). Even Mikhail Pletnev’s recording, widely welcomed as bringing new life to the repertoire with its separated violin desks and lean-toned winds, now seems a tad pale. Almost alone he combines the athletic pacing typical of the older Russians with fealty to the score. I have no problem with his relatively swift Adagio. As with Ashkenazy, the whirlwind finale goes faster than the players – or is it the recording? – can articulate with complete security. What Robert Layton heard as ‘feeling held in perfect control’ might come over better were the sound consistently balanced.

Valery Gergiev’s Kirov/Mariinsky version is surprisingly dull. He takes the first movement repeat and adds some pizzicato basses at its end. Livelier if sonically airless is his LSO remake, where Andrew Marriner’s almost introverted account of the great clarinet solo is beautifully accompanied, a real heart-stopper. Gergiev protégé Gianandrea Noseda, another fine conductor, sounds oddly stilted in this repertoire.

Little heralded at the time, Vernon Handley’s rehearse-record version for the defunct Tring label (slightly shrill at high decibels despite SACD encoding) is reliably humane and considered. Surely the recording Boult would have liked to make, with violins antiphonally placed, an emotional temperature pitched fractionally low and the first-movement repeat in place. Alexander Anissimov omits that and snips at the finale, darker and more overtly nostalgic.

More intriguing is what at first looks like a vanity project from José Cura with Sinfonia Varsovia. In fact the tenor has his own conception: he makes the repeat in the first movement, phrases discreetly and pushes on as eagerly as Pletnev. The upfront sound, less than natural and not always conducive to real pianissimo, does not fatally detract from an anti-rhetorical reading that feels genuine. And, unlike many full-time conductors, he neither compromises the first movement’s final unison, nor inserts an extra cymbal crash to usher in the finale’s lyrical climax. Sadly, there’s no encore, sung or otherwise.

In top-notch sound, Iván Fischer offers a maximally deft, ultra-refined option, pitched somewhere between Pletnev and Zinman. Textures are sifted and lightened, the ear tickled by such features as the divided violins rather than being drawn into a maelstrom of darker emotions. The unrivalled finesse of the execution would seem to place this one out in front. But is the result truly revelatory or merely supremely well rehearsed? The second movement’s big tune (from 1'14") would be a good place to test your own responses. The line is peppered with discreet slides but are they truly ‘felt’? In the Adagio, Fischer can surge with the best of them while remaining strangely dry-eyed.

Less widely noticed is a superb Semyon Bychkov performance from Cologne, tucked away in a DVD-only Rachmaninov package. Shorn of player-led commentary, The Bells and the Symphonic Dances are also available on CD (Profil, 10/07). The symphony is not, yet it receives a most persuasive realisation, passionately romantic as well as eminently lucid, as might be expected from this source. There is no first-movement repeat and the development has a mercurial Russian flexibility which rather eludes Previn, wonderful as he is at building tension. My only regret is that Bychkov hasn’t banished the extra timpani stroke – the camera zeroes in; fortunately the sound is relatively discreet. If the orchestra’s sonority is not over-rich, its playing is ardent, string lines beautifully shaped. Once past navigating the awkward menu, the camerawork may perplex. Expect over-emphatic close-ups, hazier distance shots and some out-of-focus superimposition. The musicians wear semi-formal attire in a darkened hall, apparently empty. Even from our upfront perch it’s a sympathetic venue.

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic make sophisticated audio-visual rivals. Their recent CD pairing The Bells and the Symphonic Dances (Warner, 10/13) arguably trumps Bychkov’s. The Symphony is another matter. Its less iridescent sound world gives Sir Simon fewer openings for the textural exploration he so relishes. Something has been lost since he first tackled this music (EMI, 10/84). He has every note of the score in his head but is it in his heart?

Two live audio-only options retain applause. Antonio Pappano presents the most romantic and forceful of recent interpretations. Sacrificing a modicum of the music’s structural clarity in his drive to communicate, he brings heartfelt emotion rather than perfect unanimity to the final peroration. Pappano has spoken of a Wagnerian dimension: ‘There are so many Tristan-esque chromatic progressions…and certainly one or two obvious Meistersinger references.’ He even highlights some Mahlerian details in the scoring. Nothing is glossed over.

Leonard Slatkin, who recorded the work for Vox during his glory days in St Louis, takes a tougher, plainer line in Detroit. The first movement is relatively low-key until storm clouds gather convincingly in the development. The Scherzo is fast and articulate (particularly in transitional passages which risk treading water). Possibly reflecting the ensemble’s own limitations, the sound is a little muffled, yet good enough to show up contrapuntal detail. Slatkin countenances no accretions, nor gives us a repeat.

I had high hopes of Vasily Petrenko, who regularly brings such tautness and fire to the RLPO. Alas the repeat is back and so is that timpani incursion. Despite his nostalgic manner, Previn feels less diffuse, more compelling than this. His template is proving hard to shift.

Rachmaninov is sometimes dismissed as easy to bring off, but isn’t that mere prejudice? It’s not just special pleading that prompts Bychkov to praise his own team: ‘It was fantastic to see the way the orchestra brought commitment and passion to this extremely difficult music, the spirit of which is so difficult to fathom. In the concerts they played as if it were a matter of life and death.’ Had their performance been available on CD, we might have had a surprise winner.

Historic Choice  

Leningrad PO / K Sanderling 


Not quite what Rachmaninov intended but Sanderling makes a thrilling case with his world-beating band.


Bargain Choice 

Detroit SO / Slatkin 


Slatkin’s urgent mainstream account plays to his strengths and won’t spoil you for alternative interpretations.

DVD Choice  

WDR SO, Cologne / Bychkov 


You might not want to watch as well as listen. Otherwise Bychkov ticks virtually every box.





First Choice  

LSO / Previn 

(Warner Classics)

It has to be André Previn, whose rehabilitation of this symphony ranks among his most enduring contributions to our musical life.


Selected Discography

Date / Artists / Record company (review date)

1956 Leningrad PO / K Sanderling / DG 449 767-2GOR (11/56R)

1959 Philadelphia Orch / Ormandy / Sony SB2K63257 (8/72R)

1967 Suisse Romande Orch / Kletzki / Decca Eloquence ELQ470 6752 (5/68R)

1968 USSR SO / Svetlanov/ Melodiya MELCD100 0142 (5/70R)

1973 LSO / Previn / Warner Classics 085289-2 (4/73R)

1973 LPO / Weller Decca Eloquence ELQ480 0824 (11/73R)

1976 Rotterdam PO / de Waart / Philips 438 383-2PM2; Pentatone PTC5186 153 (12/78R)

1977 USSR St SO / Temirkanov / Brilliant 8818 (4/08)

1979 Philadelphia Orch / Ormandy / EuroArts 207 2258

1980 RCO / Kondrashin / RCO Live RCO08005 (6/09)

1981 Concertgebouw Orch / Ashkenazy / Decca 448 116-2DF2; 455 798-2DC3 (7/82R)

1982 BPO / Maazel / DG 445 590-2GMA2; 478 5697GB (1/84R)

1985 RPO / Previn / Telarc CD80113 (10/85)

1986 Philh Orch / Jansons / Chandos CHAN8520 (8/88)

1988 LSO / Rozhdestvensky / Regis RRC1210 (1/89R)

1989 Philh Orch / K Sanderling / Apex 0927 49044-2 (4/90R)

1990 Moscow St SO / Kogan / Alto ALC1031

1991 BBC NOW / Otaka / Nimbus NI1786; NI1749 (5/92R)

1992 Baltimore SO / Zinman / Telarc CD80312 (10/92)

1993 Philadelphia Orch / Dutoit / Newton 8802021 (6/95R)

1993 St Petersburg PO / Jansons / EMI 500885-2; 575510-2 (8/94R)

1993 Russian Nat Orch / Pletnev / DG 477 9505GB4 (6/94R)

1993 Philh Orch / Svetlanov / ICA Classics ICAC5078

1993 Kirov Orch / Gergiev / Philips 438 864-2PH (8/94); Decca 480 6717; Newton 8802082

1994 RPO / Handley / Membran 222865

1997 Nat SO of Ireland / Anissimov / Naxos 8 554230; 8 503191

2000 Cincinnati SO / López-Cobos / Telarc CD80543

2001 Sinf Varsovia / Cura / Avie AV0022 (2/03)

2001 RSNO / Hughes / BIS BIS-CD1279 (12/02); BIS-CD1665/6

2003 Budapest Fest Orch / I Fischer / Channel Classics CCSSA21604 (8/04)

2006 Cincinnati SO / P Järvi / Telarc CD80670; SACD60670 (3/07)

2007 WDR SO, Cologne / Bychkov / ArtHaus DVD 101 439

2007 Sydney SO / Ashkenazy / Exton EXCL00013 (4/09)

2008 LSO / Gergiev / LSO Live LSO0677 (8/10)

2008 Singapore SO / Shui / BIS BIS-SACD1712 (6/09)

2009 BBC PO / Noseda / Chandos CHAN10589

2009 Santa Cecilia Orch / Pappano / EMI 949462-2 (5/11)

2009 Detroit SO / Slatkin / Naxos 8 572458

2010 Melbourne SO / Otaka / ABC Classics ABC476 4842 (10/12)

2011 RLPO / Petrenko / EMI 915473-2 (12/12)

2011 BPO / Rattle / EuroArts 205 8398; 205 8394

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