It seems incredible, doesn't it, that, at first, Rachmaninov's First Symphony was so vilified? After all, it's so very approachable, full of intensely felt drama and emotion and melody. Polyansky is something of a controversial conductor: some bemoan his slow tempi but when there is also such empathy for Rachmaninov's special language and idiom, and such an exciting and thoughtful performance as this, then I personally stand up and cheer. This is one of the most thrilling readings of this symphony I have heard. The pace might be leisurely but when those blistering climaxes arrive they are explosive. Polyansky screws up the tension so tightly it's almost unbearable. And his attack and accent! Just listen, for instance, to that powerful climax in the final movement when he allows his huge gong stroke to reverberate and subside slowly for some moments adding immeasurably to the dramatic effect. The scherzo is a quicksilver delight: one moment light as a feather, the next sombre and filled with terror.
Throughout, Polansky's shaping, his contouring is inspired; and, in the more romantic yearning passages, gorgeously legato. I have often remarked about the poetic phrasing and beautifully silken smooth playing of the Russian State Orchestra under Polyansky (yes, silken-smooth is an over-worked phrase as applied to musical criticism but most appropriate here).
Polansky's Larghetto is some two minutes longer than Ashkenazy. Ponderous? Not a bit of it; it breathes bitter-sweet Slavian melancholy, its romance and deep tragedy eloquently, movingly, hauntingly sung.
Respighi was greatly respected as an arranger and orchestrator. In response to a suggestion by Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Rachmaninov selected five of his Etudes Tableau for Respighi to orchestrate. "I am sure that in your masterly hands, these Etudes will be made to sound marvellous', Rachmaninov wrote to Respighi and suggested ways of approaching them (that is to say, Rachmaninov suggested pictorial images from which Respighi might work.) Later Rachmaninov called them "Respighi's suite" though, apparently, he was not entirely happy with Respighi's orchestrations.
The first of the Etudes is The Sea and the Seagulls an evocative seascape in which there is much reference to the Dies Irae (one of Rachmaninov's preoccupations). It is a greyish, sombre, monochromatic picture. [I could not help thinking of Walt Whitman and Delius's Sea Drift; there is a very similar feel and association.] The second Etude is a Fair Scene, brash and Petruchka-like. The fourth Etude is a brief but amusing musical telling of Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, a small orchestral tour-de-force, while the fifth is an Oriental Dance, as colourful and lively as the second. Third Etude is as substantial and compelling as the first. Rachmaninov suggested that this Funeral March should unfold in "fine, insistent and hopeless rain". This funeral sounds imposing - perhaps of some important figure, maybe a statesman or a general - for the music is magisterial and it has at times a martial ring. Bells toll and one senses a choir at a distance singing in the church. Polyansky's readings are more evocative and probe deeper than, for instance, Lóbez-Cobos on Telarc.
For me, this is one of the most thrilling, passionate and moving
performances of Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 1 on record. The little-known
Respighi orchestrations of five of Rachmaninov's Etudes-Tableaux make
a compelling fill-up to a very desirable album.