RACHMANINOV Orchestral Works
Rarely has record company calendar-watching so revolutionized our perception of a composer's output as it did in the mid–1970s following the Rachmaninov centenary. Andre Previn's EMI series was more than an important product of that shift, for many it was the crucial factor in confirming Rachmaninov's greatness as a symphonist. EG predicted as much in his splendidly partial notes for the original LP issue of the hitherto marginalized Second Symphony. And it is one of the less commendable features of the present package that those notes should be reprinted here in bowdlerized form with no credit given to their originator. On the plus side, the new transfer of No. 2 has a warmer top and more generous bass response than EMI's previous (1986) remastering, and the box as a whole crams in more Rachmaninov than one would have thought possible, giving it a head start over the obvious alternatives, Ashkenazy's Decca cycle with the Concertgebouw and Litton's newly repackaged Virgin set.
Previn's approach to these works is broadly consistent, but it is noticeable that his epic, long-breathed conceptions work best in those recordings made in association with a series of live performances. During the 1970s, the London Symphony Orchestra performed the Second Symphony with such regularity (in Moscow, Hong Kiong and Salzburg as well as London) that many listeners have difficulty accepting any phrasing of the Adagio's now celebrated clarinet theme which differs substantially from Jack Brymer's. If anything, Ashkenazy's more impulsive, more authentically Slav way with the score has been undervalued as a result. More recently, Andrew Litton has been highly praised in this repertoire, and his is an impressive account even if it does not have quite the authority of its rivals, too often disrupting forward momentum with self-indulgent point-making. For the record, Previn was not quite the first to present the work uncut on disc, although Kletzki's pioneering efforts (Decca, 5/68—nla) were stymied by inadequate orchestral playing. Few younger conductors would nowadays make even the traditional 'St Petersburg' cut in the finale (though Jansons recently wielded the knife in concert). Litton goes one better than Previn and, following Rozhdestvensky's lead, includes the first movement repeat. Like ES, who was generally much taken with Litton's hyper-romantic approach, I am not convinced by this practice.
In the Third Symphony Previn remains ahead by a nose. Though it would be unfair to gloss over the less than perfect tuning of clarinets, horn and solo cello in the chant-like 'motto' theme, the performance quickly takes flight, and the playing is subsequently of the very first rank. Litton takes his key from what the old 1951 Record Guide identified as the Symphony's ''enigmatic despair''. His RPO offers less refined sonorities than Previn's LSO, let alone Ashkenazy's Concertgebouw, but any deficiencies are more than offset by the truly glorious sound. As usual, Litton is very free with rubato in the curiously epigrammatic first movement, dangerously undermining the structure while achieving a stricken, almost Mahlerian sense of collapse at the end of the development which works surprisingly well. The heartbreaking climax of the second movement is memorable too, less stickily phrased than you might expect. Only the finale disappoints, rather lame and lacking in drive until the frantic closing pages.
The only Previn performance to meet with a less than overwhelming reception in these pages (apart, that is, from an allegedly over-sweet Vocalise) was his 1975 Symphony No. 1. Trevor Harvey's main worry was the music itself: for him this was still very much the long-suppressed student failure, still—despite the appropriation of its finale as a TV signature tune, not to mention Ormandy's ardent advocacy—something of a problem piece. We hear it differently now. And yet I wonder how many readers are as baffled as I am that the musicologists' sometimes frenzied acclaim for this particular Rachmaninov work should be regularly accompanied by sweeping denunciations of the later symphonies despite any number of shared emotional traits and formal preoccupations. Previn's generally soft-grained manner serves to emphasize the continuities. It is a shame the indecisive opening was not remade and there is some uncertainty in the aspiring string lines of the slow movement (most notably in the passage from 2'46'' ff), but the finale has splendid weight and power where Litton is slightly cautious. Elsewhere in the symphony, however, Litton emerges a clear winner, keeping things on the move with no loss of flexibility. Anyone who loves this music will want to hear his effective solutions to its awkward corners, eased by the availability, since 1977, of a more reliable score.
In the Symphonic Dances, Litton fares less well, lumbering in the first movement and stiff in the second, for once less free than Previn, whose affectionate approach is here at its most enticing. In the finale, Litton is again closer to the score in allowing a more marked slowing for the coda's transcription of the traditional Orthodox chant,
Decca should consider recoupling Ashkenazy's Rachmaninov more economically: his are thrilling, very Russian readings, superbly played by a great orchestra on fine form, if rather too reverberantly recorded for some tastes. Meanwhile, unless modern digital recording is a must, the fiercer-sounding Previn collection is probably the one to have. He is the most natural, if not always the most electrifying of Rachmaninov interpreters. Eschewing the bolder surges of his competitors, his sense of line seldom falters and he always allows the music space to breathe and to grow. One of the few incontrovertibly great orchestral recordings of its decade, his E minor Symphony should of course be made available separately.'