Rachmaninov Complete Symphonies and Orchestral Works
Now in his 71st year, Vladimir Ashkenazy’s formidable artistic credentials in this glorious repertoire need no further bolstering from me, and it was good to register (in Jo Litson’s interview in the February issue) his excitement at taking up his new post at the helm of the Sydney SO. Now comes this lavish five-CD box, set down in conjunction with a much-lauded Rachmaninov Festival held in Sydney during October and November 2007, and compiled from both live concerts and studio sessions.
Some alarmingly audible platform noise early on in the First Symphony (the sole comparative misfire in the whole enterprise) does not bode well but mercifully proves an isolated disturbance. The audience is commendably (almost spookily) quiet throughout; applause has been excised. The Sydney Opera House acoustic is not, in all truthfulness, of the most accommodating in terms of breathing-space and enticing glow: balance is closer than one would ideally wish, there’s a want of airy bloom (string tone is the biggest casualty) and tuttis acquire a certain unflattering tubbiness. Nor, of course, can Ashkenazy’s band muster the fabulous composure, superfine blend and bombproof discipline of the incomparable Amsterdam Concertgebouw on his earlier Decca series (7/96), but there’s absolutely nothing slipshod about their contribution, and they respond with a bighearted honesty and commitment that count for a very great deal.
For me the set’s plum has to be the Second Symphony, which I found utterly engrossing in its natural ebb and flow (Ashkenazy’s control of rubato is as organic as it is shapely), tender vulnerability, unassuming cogency and sheer integrity – in which respects it (unexpectedly) put me in mind of Vernon Handley’s similarly lucid, eloquent and humane 1994 RPO recording (a little-known gem, all too briefly available on Tring International). In the Third the sparks don’t quite fly as they do on Ashkenazy’s own classic Decca account – to say nothing of the very fine Kogan and Vänskä versions that have recently come my way (1/09, 3/09) – but the generous spirit, wisdom and emotional candour on show are memorably affecting none the less.
Elsewhere, The Isle of the Dead enshrines another deeply compassionate conception, while the hugely involving traversal of the Symphonic Dances leaves the listener in no doubt of Ashkenazy’s comprehensive familiarity with, and rapt empathy for, this devastatingly powerful masterpiece. That the performance of the First Symphony only intermittently takes wing is all the more surprising, given how sympathetically Ashkenazy gauges the yearning lyricism and impulsive ardour of its seldom-played satellite creation, the Caprice bohémien. The remaining (mostly rare) extras benefit from Ashkenazy’s total identification with the idiom combined with the necessary sense of infectious discovery. I should also mention that Ashkenazy is a tasteful guide in matters of text: exposition repeats are observed (even in the prentice “Youth” Symphony – most welcome!), and you’ll encounter no unnecessary dollops of added percussion in the First Symphony.
So, a supremely enjoyable, if somewhat extravagant memento of what was clearly a rewarding retrospective; Rachmaninov/ Ashkenazy completists and diehards alike will find much to savour. Apparently Exton were also on hand to preserve this same team’s Elgar Festival last November, and after that we can expect further bumper helpings of Prokofiev and Mahler in 2009 and 2010.