Rachmaninov (The) Isle of the Dead; Symphonic Dances

Electrifying live renditions that can’t quite measure up to studio versions

Author: 
Edward Greenfield
Rachmaninov Isle of the DeadRachmaninov Isle of the Dead

RACHMANINOV (The) Isle of the Dead; Symphonic Dances

  • (The) Isle of the dead
  • Symphonic Dances (orch)

It is apt that the LPO’s principal guest conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, should have a place in the first issue of the orchestra’s own-label discs. Since 2001, when he was appointed music director at Glyndebourne, Jurowski has established his credentials as one of the leading conductors of his generation, and the LPO was shrewd in signing him up two years ago. What better repertory, then, for his first LPO disc than Rachmaninov?

The electricity Jurowski can generate is clearly established in the Symphonic Dances, leading up to a thrilling close, and if the hushed sequence of The Isle of the Dead is not a work to bring such a rush of adrenalin, the mystery of this piece inspired by Hölderlin’s great painting is perfectly caught. These are fine performances that gain in tension from being recorded live. Even if this involves some odd balances – with woodwind relatively distant, timpani close and chimes almost inaudible in the Symphonic Dances – the definition of detail is good and one can readily rectify the rather low level of the CD transfer.

Comparing this with other versions, one problem seems to be the acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall. Both Previn in the 1970s and Jansons in the 1990s enjoy studio acoustics that are fuller and beefier. Generally that is an advantage in this music, even if the relative distancing of the Jurowski performance of The Isle of the Dead adds to its mystery.

What for many will be another reservation is that, by the standards of those rival versions (both conductors pairing Symphony No 1 with The Isle of the Dead and Symphony No 3 with the Symphonic Dances), this is an ungenerous coupling, even when you take into account the fact that Jurowski’s speeds are broader. Curiously the timing given in the booklet for The Isle of the Dead – 14 minutes instead of 22’24” plus applause – makes it seem even more ungenerous than it is (I cannot remember a CD in which the documentation gives such consistently inaccurate timings).

For all the refinement and concentration in the Jurowski performances, my own preference is for the rival versions: Jansons is more bitingly urgent and Previn more warmly expressive in the Symphonic Dances, with both moving the processional of The Isle of the Dead on more inexorably. Yet these LPO performances are both recommendable and will delight anyone wanting a disc from this exciting conductor.

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