Aureole etc.




Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphonies and Piano Concertos
The EMI Classics Recordings with the St Petersburg PO conducted by Mariss Jansons

CD1
Symphony No. 1 (1895) [46.11]
The Isle of the Dead (1909) [19.47]
CD2
Symphony No. 2 (1906) [54.33]
Scherzo in D minor (1887) [5.29]
Vocalise (1912) [6.57]
CD3
Symphony No. 3 (1936) [37.35]
Symphonic Dances (1940) [34.32]
CD4
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1891) [28.14]
Piano Concerto No. 4 (1926)[26.30] (with both 1941 and 1926 versions of finale)
CD5
Piotr TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1 [34.47]
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 2 (1900) [35.28]
CD6
Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909) [41.44]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1933) [24.41]
Mikhail Rudy (piano)
St Petersburg (Leningrad) PO/Mariss Jansons
rec Philharmonic Hall, St Petersburg, Dec 1990 (CD5); Sept 1992 (CD3, CD6); Sept 1993 (CD2, CD4); Jan 1998 (CD1) DDD
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 75510 2 1 [65.58+67.13+72.17+65.01+70.40+66.11]


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This is a handsomely done set with many strengths. Musically it is dependable and in places brilliant. It is of course an attractive buy six discs at bargain price. No nonsense packaging does not have to be anonymous. The fold-out box, card sleeves and chunky booklet are consistent with EMI Classics similar budget line boxes of the Boult RVW symphonies (1960s-70s vintage) and the intégrale of Helsinki/Berglund Sibelius.

All of this would be pretty futile if the performances were not at least decent. There are few worries on that score. The First Symphony is tautly controlled and dynamic with moments that function like the ripping back of giant drapes to reveal a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night. Stormy and angry (parallels with Svetlanov here), the strings are finely grained without the aureate tone of Ormandy’s Philadelphia set (Sony Essential Classics). The finale has a tight and sharply etched rhythmic rap. The effect en masse is big though not opulently toned. The Isle of the Dead breathes and laps - a black welling up. It reminded me of Herrmann’s music for the ‘Rosebud’ phantasm in Citizen Kane. Vocalise is tender and rich - as good as Previn’s 1970s version but more controlled than the Moffo/Stokowski on BMG. Jansons’ Second Symphony is cogently argued and convincingly felt with surprising impressionistic touches. It has a swart muscular swell and rise suggestive of threat and foreboding. The recording of the Third Symphony showcases the exceptional dynamic range of these discs. In it Rachmaninov is most like Bax with many a shudder, coaxing and gentle susurration. In the second movement (at 10.20) comes the first indication of Russian vibrato from the French Horns (it reappears in Rudy’s Third Piano Concerto). I was pleased to hear it. In the finale the woodwind sound Sibelian (11.02). The first flute of the St Petersburg is breathtakingly flighty if not quite of Philadelphia standard. This is an orchestral showpiece par excellence yet as poetic as any of Rachmaninov’s romances. The symphony ends in a colossal gallop.

While the Third Symphony is very good Jansons’ Symphonic Dances are even better. The orchestra croaks, squawks, stalks and whispers and when it picks up speed there is no loss of definition. The oboe duet with the saxophone in the first dance is most poetically done. The Second Dance is an accentuated hyper-Prokofiev, psychological waltz with touches of Tchaikovskian regret (Eugene Onegin). The flute swirls impress but are not as artificially close as those of Kondrashin. The brass have a most imperious presence. In the final dance the orchestra’s split-second Gatling attack has a vicious edginess and smashing defiance with a walloping thump to the climactic blasts. This is a grand conception grandly executed though it lacks the iron will Kondrashin brought to his 1960s Moscow recording.

Then come the piano concertos. These would have been rather thinly spread given the six disc format. However the flag is kept flying by the importing of Rudy’s version of the Tchaikovsky Concerto (not quite as much of an interloper as the Mozart concerto in EMI’s bargain box of Sawallisch’s orchestral Brahms). The Tchaikovsky is stonily splendid, driven but with an introductory languid romance which will not be to all tastes. The orchestral impact at climactic moments has the serrated bite of a Stilson. I suppose I should have been less surprised by the strengths of this reading given Jansons’ splendid Tchaikovsky symphony series with the Oslo orchestra (Chandos, 1980s). The other addition is the inclusion on CD4 of both the 1941 and 1926 versions of the finale (allegro vivace) of the Fourth Piano Concerto. I love the first and last piano concertos and have often returned to them in the Earl Wild version (currently economically available on Chandos). Rudy however is clipped and nowhere near as expressively heady as Wild. You may be drawn to these performances of 1 and 4 if you have tired of glitz and glamour. Things improve for the infamous Second Concerto. Its grey expanses grow on you. In the Third the curiously self-effacing style at the start of the Tchaikovsky reappears. This is moderated by Rudy whose reading is urgent and who champs at the bit with edge-of-seat eagerness. At the same time he exhibits wondrous delicacy and volatility: scintillating sparks, flying smithereens and burning shards scatter in all directions in the more volcanic moments. At their best these artists recapture a calm remission and ecstatic reinvention that compares very well indeed with Argerich (Philips) and Wild (Chandos). The Rudy Paganini Rhapsody is a virile thing of dazzling strengths and finely etched detail. The slashed glissandi of the finale proclaim a great orchestra in young maturity. The St Petersburg band deserve praise.

This set is a mixed blessing … as ever with substantial boxs. Connoisseurs of the symphonies will go for Kondrashin (cut but gaudily intense) or Ashkenazy or Ormandy (the latter on Sony Essential Classics is my personal top choice - though I am torn between this and the Kondrashin). The Second Symphony has recently been produced in a smashing though rather rapid version by Cura (Avie) and an expansive but effective wallow by Kurt Sanderling (Warner Elatus). The Symphonic Dances are fervently done by the otherwise rather languid Polyansky on Chandos. Imagination radiates from the Kondrashin version on BMG-Melodiya but the transfer is misconceived and sadly should be passed by. The complete concertos are wonderfully done by Earl Wild (Chandos) and if you want the Third Concerto alone then Argerich (Philips) is difficult to top. For variety as well as a very steady, almost Schumann-like, version of the Third pick up the eccentric de Larrocha disc on Australian Decca Eloquence. By the time you have searched these out and spent quite a bit more money you could have had the present boxed set at a price that will suit the most impecunious collector. The only real let-down here is the disc of the first and fourth concertos. The Second is excellent and the Third stands in the very top rank. Of the symphonies the Third as well as the Symphonic Dances and The Isle of the Dead are superb. The other two symphonies receive good readings. Everything is accorded a lively recorded image and the new trilingual notes by Andrew Huth complete an attractive purchase.

Rob Barnett



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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