RACHMANINOV Symphony No 2 (Ashkenazy)
Vladimir Ashkenazy has always conducted Rachmaninov’s most extended symphony with conviction, making it feel not one bar too long. Indeed, with the possible exceptions of André Previn and Mariss Jansons, it is difficult to think of a contemporary exponent more completely at home in it. This authoritative, concert-sourced rendering from November 2015 brings their respective tally to three recordings apiece. The differences? Both Previn and Ashkenazy restore the cut that Jansons continues to inflict on the finale while rejecting the modern embrace of the first-movement exposition repeat and the older impulse to terminate that movement with a bogus percussive thwack. Neither favours extremes of tempo although Ashkenazy is closer to Jansons in combining red-bloodedness with agility.
It is the peripherals which have changed most since Ashkenazy made his famous Concertgebouw recording for Decca. Signum’s version was captured in London’s Royal Festival Hall, which means that the sound is somewhat dusty and opaque, belying the advances in digital technology since 1981. Remarkably the producer, then as now, is Andrew Cornall; and given that Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia took the Second Symphony to several acoustically superior UK halls, I sense a missed opportunity.
On to the booklet, where the designer’s choice of sky-blue backgrounds of varying intensity makes the text difficult to read as well as lending the physical product a curiously unsophisticated look. There’s no doubting the bond between conductor, orchestra and audience – the applause at the end is vociferous – but whether non-attendees will want to supplement Ashkenazy’s studio classic with this newcomer is a moot point.