RACHMANINOV Symphony No 1 (Ashkenazy)
It’s third time around for Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Rachmaninov symphonies. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of any active musician more completely at home in this repertoire. His famous studio recordings of the 1980s remain competitive, at once red-blooded and light on their feet. Only the placement of instrumental choirs in that big Concertgebouw acoustic can seem rather woozy now, the early digital production tending to attenuate the rich string tone of its resident orchestra. Ashkenazy revisited the First as part of his 2007 Sydney Rachmaninov Festival and when a set of mostly live renditions emerged on disc the relatively close-up sound was presumably intended to stifle any noises off. A vain hope in this case. The present Signum recording, with a sonic profile somewhere between the two, was captured in concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall last November. Given that the venue is probably the least acoustically generous of those encountered during the orchestra’s UK-wide Rachmaninov project, the results are commendable if scarcely lustrous, with kettledrums unexpectedly prominent.
The composer Robert Simpson reckoned Rachmaninov’s First Symphony the finest of the three, wowed by its obsessive motivic workings. Problems persist, however, chiefly over matters of scoring, and Ashkenazy is not one to refurbish the first movement’s occasionally inexpert textures. Its opening gestures are enunciated without fuss. Nor is its maestoso climax capped by the unvalidated bells favoured by Ormandy, Previn, Litton and the late Zoltán Kocsis (whose exceptionally fleet, live-ish version should be better known). Old hands perceiving Ashkenazy to be faster than before will find him relaxing the inner movements, the Allegro animato flickering deftly, the darker Larghetto heartfelt with notably eloquent solo clarinet work from Mark van de Wiel. Good to see orchestra members listed in the booklet, for all that Signum’s sky-blue backgrounds make texts difficult to read. Arriving at the finale’s celebrated (ex-BBC Panorama) fanfare, we find the inverted commas still rather deliberately placed where others power on.
In the absence of a major interpretative rethink, the strings swell and swirl with what feels like idiomatic fervour and the brass‑playing is enthusiastic. There’s no suggestion that the special bond between this conductor, his orchestra and his audience has atrophied over time. An eager though gesturally awkward presence on the podium in what was then his 79th year, he has given us a persuasive souvenir of his live music-making, albeit one shorn of applause. We are promised the other symphonies and the Symphonic Dances in due course; but couldn’t we have been given more than 43 minutes here?