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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Isle of the Dead Op. 29 (1909) [22:30]
Symphonic Dances Op. 45 (1940) [36:45]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. Royal Festival Hall, London, 8 Dec 2004 (Isle), 29 Oct 2003 (Dances). SACD. DDD


Jurowski is something of a one-man dynamo harnessed to the recording of Russian repertoire. His work in reviving rare and not so rare Prokofiev ballets on CPO and Capriccio should not be overlooked.

In the case of The Isle of the Dead he clearly relishes the long line and is well able to sustain that elusive sombre mood across the mesmerising alternation of consolatory lapping and murmurs of disquiet. The RFH acoustic rather accentuates the baritonal sepia qualities of the piece. If you like a steadily paced approach bringing out parallels with Balakirev’s Tamar and early Stravinsky this should be for you. I looked in vain for more growl and rasp. On the other hand the silvery surging of the violins at 13:10 onwards links, with great strength, to the adagio of the Second Symphony. The rocking and lapping motif returns at the end. When the piece ends in a remarkably Tuonela-like glow the audience silence is well held before applause finally breaks in. I have a feeling that this is a performance that will grow on me.

As a work the Symphonic Dances are a personal favourite. My reference recording is the Kondrashin from circa 1963 with the Moscow PO. It has never been satisfactorily transferred. The BMG reissue in 1997-8 carried heavy distortion at the climaxes. The best approximation to date is the transfer on audiophile classics. The Jurowski is a good performance bearing all the characteristics of their Isle of the Dead. Overall though this is rather stolid and lacks the necessary avian lift and crunching attack. A modern accessible recording that meets these criteria is the one by Yuri Termirkanov on BMG with the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. Temirkanov repeated that febrile intensity in August 2004 at the Royal Albert Hall Proms - a blistering performance. Jurowski warms things up considerably in the finale which has some crackingly sustained ‘walls’ of brass sound. The final tam-tam crash is allowed to resound until the sound decays naturally; good choice.

In the case of both works the audience are mostly quiet as church mice - mice who have found the cure to the common cold and worked out how to administer it.

I listened to this disc on conventional CD equipment.

Rob Barnett

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