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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor (1906-7) [66.13]
London Symphony Orchestra/Gennadi Rozhdestvensky
rec. 10-11 March 1988, All Saints Church, Tooting, London. DDD
REGIS RRC 1210 [66.13]

Can Regis pick 'em! This is a succulent and sumptuously upholstered Rachmaninov 2. Rozhdestvensky teamed with the most consistently inspirational of the London's orchestras is a recipe for something special. So it proves!

Rozhdestvensky is one of that small enclave who can be relied on to ignite the kindling of this symphony and turn it into a blazing and roaring sunset. Listen for example to the Rimskian cauldron at 18:28 in the first movement.

Trygg Tryggvason was the recording engineer who conspired in this reading and met fire with fire. Although there are stunning climaxes the microphone array also picks up the woodwind blandishments and seductions woven into this most romantic of scores.

Quite properly Andrew Marriner's clarinet is listed separately although it is a pity that the Leader is not listed. Can anyone tell me who it was?

The Allegro molto is turned into a heavily accented 'chatter' at first and again at 3.44. The sighing streaming grand romantic theme at 1.50 is allowed to stretch and yawn, to float and fly. Just at the start of the movement, at 1:19, the gracious clarinet preface strikes what now sounds as a foreshadowing of the Symphonic Dances.

The Adagio can easily degenerate into slush. Rozhdestvensky keeps this version almost disappointingly matter-of-fact at first, the better to unleash the full lyrical force of the movement at 6:59. There the firmament lights up in the aural equivalent of a starry sky, a gravely soaring Klimt-like kaleidscope.

The brilliance of the Allegro vivace at first catches out the LSO violins with a hint of scrappiness in their full tilt tumult. Soon everyone settles down into a pulsating and sumptuous reading in which the massed violins sing in glimmering splendour. The weighty sounds generated by the brass desks provide not only underpinning but also centre-stage command. There's no suggestion here of adipose tendencies or a clumsy lumber. Not for the first time does Rozhdestvensky remind us of the indebtedness to Tchaikovsky with little echoes of the march from the Pathétique.

How does it compare with so many other performances in and out of the catalogue? In recent years I have been greatly impressed with Jose Cura's racy and rapid version on Avie AV0022 but my it's quick at 58.14 ... even allowing for cuts [review]. It stands very much at the other pole from Rozhdestvensky. Rozhdestvensky combines the best of the classic Previn version on EMI but without the gelatin filter halo and soft-focus romantic aura. Golovanov is on Boheme if you can find it. He gives an eccentric performance which calls down the fire from Heaven; certainly worth experiencing if you can bear the 1940s Soviet mono sound. Janssons with the St Petersburg sounds more natural but lacks the impetuosity of Cura and the flammable spontaneity of Rozhdestvensky. Svetlanov's battered and cut 1960s recording is still glorious and is closer to Cura and Golovanov than to Previn.

Another version not to be forgotten is Kurt Sanderling's from 1989 recorded in St Barnabas Church, Mitcham, Surrey now on Warner Classics Apex 0927 49044 2 [review]. This plays for 67.21. Sanderling coaxes and caresses every note and relishes each bar. His orchestra sounds voluptuously ample and the strings sing and seethe remarkably well. He reminded me of Ormandy. Despite the long playing time Sanderling weighs and shapes the phrases and momentum with experienced judgement. Things go less well for him in his arthritic finale which ought to have a galvanic and euphoric rush. Despite his impeccable Russian credentials Downes and the BBCPO did not grip my attention but another British conductor, Vernon Handley on Tring (long deleted), is outstanding.

Regis complete this top contender with excellent notes by James Murray. I am so pleased that he takes time to mention Rozhdestvensky's father, the conductor Nikolai Anosov (1900-1962). The cover image uses Savrasov's painting 'The Early Spring'.

Rozhdestvensky on this Regis release sings the socks off most versions and stands out from the crowd. You may have heard a hundred or more versions over the years. I guarantee this will rekindle that first fresh shimmer of discovery, that tremor of the heart, that spine-tingling indicator that tells you what it was to live the creation and recreation of this music.

Rob Barnett



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