Rachmaninov Orchestral Works

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Rachmaninov Orchestral Works

  • Symphony No. 3
  • Symphonic Dances (orch)

Here is one of the more distinguished Rachmaninov issues of recent years, indubitably the best of the ongoing Mariss Jansons/St Petersburg Rachmaninov series. If, like me, you have found the conductor's reputation as an orchestral trainer fully justified but his recordings just a little too manicured, this could be the disc to change your mind. In fact, it raises any number of interesting questions. What, for example, do we mean by authenticity in Rachmaninov performance? Decca taped this very programme under Charles Dutoit in Philadelphia, going to some lengths to recapture the fabled (and strangely elusive) high-gloss Philadelphia sound. Now EMI repatriate these quintessential products of the emigre experience to St Petersburg, where a specifically Russian sonority survives, albeit in mollified form. There are textual imponderables too. When Rachmaninov himself recorded the Third Symphony in Philadelphia (now on Pearl), he ignored the important first movement exposition repeat. Unlike most modern rivals, Jansons omits it too. And, turning to the Symphonic Dances, what about that final gong stroke? The Jansons solution is something of a compromise: he lets it ring—but not too loudly and not for too long!
While no Rachmaninov Third unfolds as inexorably as Andre Previn's, it is refreshing to hear the opening 'motto' theme played perfectly in tune by an orchestra on even more dazzling form than the LSO in 1976. In the first movement, there is a confident authority about the Russians' playing which might even be said to undermine the paradoxical, uncertain mood you feel the composer intends. At the same time, Jansons unearths such exquisite details of sonority and texture that criticism is all but silenced. The second movement opens with a conspicuously non-Western horn and some unfashionably glutinous solo violin playing. Perhaps there have been more haunting, more fundamentally pessimistic accounts. I have heard none with such an ear for Rachmaninov's sometimes risky orchestral effects. What DJF described as this orchestra's ''instinct for collective idiomatic nuance and pointed individual contributions'' makes Jansons's tendency to fuss over the finer points more stimulating than distracting. The finale provides a spectacular display vehicle, though the trumpet line gets lost at 11'10'', just before an exaggerated subito piano disrupts the disciplined dash for the finishing line. Throughout, the rhythmic precision and sheer weight of sound is startling. Even if the music doesn't always hang together quite as well as it might, this is a reading of exceptional quality.
The Symphonic Dances are even more impressive. Jansons sets an ideal tempo for the first movement and proves much less heavily expressive than, say, Andrew Litton. Again, one could query details—the queasy, Iron Curtain timbre of the alto saxophone will not be to all tastes and the coda's major-key reminiscence of the (then-suppressed) First Symphony is rather thrown away, the cantabile very brightly lit. On the other hand, the insinuating waltz movement is irresistible, very free with idiomatic-sounding rubato, while the dynamic outer portions of the finale are superbly articulated. Only the central lento assai could conceivably have been more hushed and tentative. This section can be profoundly moving, the last glimpse of a nineteenth-century romantic tradition unsullied by cynicism, commercialism or any of the critically approved modern 'isms' of its day and ours. Jansons makes his way to a climactic, Tchaikovskian catharsis (from fig. 80) that seems inappropriately affirmative and louder than marked. And yet, in its way, it works. Dazzling in the closing stages, Jansons is unfazed by the coda's unexpected restatement of the Orthodox chant, Blaqosloven esi, Gospodi. He pulls back the tempo sharply, ploughing through the passage in decidedly unliturgical, even pseudo-military fashion, before revving up for the final bars. Neither Ashkenazy nor Previn—arguably closest to the spirit of the score's Poco meno mosso in relaxing tensions here—is easily set aside, but Jansons's coupling has an inescapable logic. His recording is impressive too, though rather thicker in the bass and generally less translucent than Virgin Classics' state-of-the-art sound for Litton. EMI's close-miking of instrumental lines may inhibit the sort of tonal blend implied by Rachmaninov's scoring, but the distinctive heft and huskiness of Mravinsky's string section is not betrayed. In its lush, extrovert way, this new CD could prove unbeatable. It has to be one of my records of the year—despite that missed exposition repeat.'

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