Symphony No 1 & The Isle of the Dead
Russian National Orchestra,
DG 463 075-2, Full
This disc will cause great rejoicing to Pletnev's many fans, as it completes
his recordings of the Rachmaninov Symphonies for DGG. The second symphony,
some problems with the recording of the timpani excepted, received universal
acclaim, the third less so, but still was more than acceptable. Where does
this new disc come in this series. Unfortunately for me a very distinct third
As with most of Pletnev's discs, the playing of the orchestra and the recording
quality are both excellent, and I found almost nothing to criticise here.
After many recordings in this location, the DGG engineers now manage consistently
to give a very accurate picture of the sound of this great orchestra. And
so we have here, powerful brass, but not raw and completely over the top
as in the old soviet days, silky sweet strings with a unanimity which is
quite remarkable, and woodwinds which are both flexible and beautifully blended.
If this is enough for you, then go out and buy this disc.
If however you have heard and love either the Ormandy (Sony) or the Ashkenazy
(Decca) versions, you will find this current recording very low key. It is
as if the conductor is saying "listen to us playing this symphony very
beautifully" which is true. What is missing however is the passion, which
both of the earlier versions display in abundance. I find this most
disconcerting, as Pletnev's credentials in the interpretation of Rachmaninov
are as good as you can get.
There are many examples also where the conductor pulls the rhythm around
which destroys the flow of the music. One particularly bad example is in
the finale, starting at 1"09", 1'17", 1'30", 1'35" and 1'48", where the whole
forward momentum is destroyed.
Maybe on further hearings I may become more accustomed to these distortions,
but I doubt it. If I had not heard many competitive versions I may have accepted
these anomalies more easily but I also doubt it. The same situation arose
in Pletnev's readings of some of the early Tchaikovsky symphonies where a
somewhat inappropriate Bruckner like atmosphere came into the interpretation.
I know that there is more than one way of playing works, and no one way is
the correct way, but the tempi and rhythmic distortions within this first
symphony of Rachmaninov are a little bit too much.
The symphony had a disastrous first performance, being conducted by an inebriated
Glazunov. It was further savaged by the then critics, and the composer Cui
described it as a programme symphony entitled "The Seven Plagues of Egypt".
Luckily, Rachmaninov has come in from the cold over the past 10-15 years,
but his orchestral works have still been somewhat coolly received with only
the second symphony and one or two of the smaller orchestral works making
it to the repertoire.
One of these is the filler to this disc, namely The Isle of the Dead, a 20
minute symphonic poem which was based upon the Bocklin picture showing the
solitary oarsman steering a body to its resting place on an island in the
middle of a lake. This is played superbly, and has just the right atmosphere
to conjure up the atmosphere of the picture, albeit at a little lower
Documentation is very good, and if you are unaffected by my reservations,
there is much to enjoy in this issue.
See also review by Marc Bridle