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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. live, Royal Festival Hall, London, 8 December 2004 (Op. 29); 29 October 2003 (Op. 45).
LPO 0004 [60:17]

In constant demand as both a pianist and conductor, Sergei Rachmaninov found precious little time for composition. One of his more fertile periods came when in 1906 he resigned a position at the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow and moved his family to Dresden. During this period he composed his second (and in my opinion finest) symphony, and the haunting tone poem, The Isle of the Dead, inspired by the painting of the same name (1886) by Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901). The painting depicts a rocky island rising out of the sea, and a boatman rowing his small craft containing only himself and a mysteriously shrouded figure toward an entry gate.
 
In a brilliant musical maneuver, Rachmaninov portrays the only hint of motion in the painting through the use of a persistent rhythmic figure in 5/8 time. After this opening gesture, the music roars to a climax with the full large orchestra, which is followed by a tranquil section that might represent an actual funeral service. The melody begins to hint at the first phrase of the plainchant Dies Irae from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, a device which Rachmaninov would use time and again throughout his composing career.
 
In spite of its austere title, this work, at times stark and brooding, is also warm ... even inviting. It is rife with the kind of lush orchestration and sweeping melody that made Rachmaninov one of the last of the great romantics. This is a performance that exceeds all expectations. Vladimir Jurowski leads a beautifully paced performance capped with lovingly shaped phrases. His reading favorably compares to the Ashkenazy/Philharmonia reading on Philips and the Jansons/St Petersburg Philharmonic performance on EMI (see review) in terms of both depth of interpretation and the solid, well disciplined orchestral sound. The warm inviting tone is so luxurious that you almost feel physically embraced by it, as if there were a literal blanket of music wrapping itself around you. The performance is mood altering and glorious, and then ... that wonderful moment is annihilated with about fifteen seconds of utterly needless applause. Good heavens, what were the producers thinking? OK, we all know that one of the most economic ways for an orchestra to be heard on disc is to record their best live concerts, but why trash such a beautifully crafted moment by keeping the applause in? Sheesh! Bah! Fie!
 
For the last quarter century of his life, after his permanent departure from his native Russia, Rachmaninov had even less time available for composing, having to support himself and his family with constant concerts and tours. There are but a handful of works from this period. One of the majors is the Symphonic Dances, composed in New York while the composer was recovering from surgery. Originally for two pianos, he later orchestrated them as a showpiece for Eugene Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra, which gave the first performance in 1941.
 
Rachmaninov created the works not to be symphonic in their formal structure, but rather in their size and scope. They are broad powerful works, brilliantly orchestrated and include a major theme from the alto saxophone, a somewhat unusual gesture, even today. The marvel of this composer’s music is his ability successfully to juxtapose sheer power and virtuosity with melodies so gorgeous that they almost belong in a movie love scene.
 
Again, Jurowski captures both sides of the composer with great flair. This too is a most excellent performance, although the audience noise is more prevalent in this work than in the first, and this becomes a bit of an annoyance. In particular he gets a very fine string sound, reminiscent of what used to come from Ormandy and Stokowski. Wind playing is also superb, with the aforementioned alto saxophone solo coming off very well indeed. Brass is crisp and never overpowering, but when they need to turn up the heat, they do so to thrilling effect.
 
Again, the final movement is marred by applause, although it seems a bit more fitting since this piece ends with a bang. This series from the London Philharmonic holds a great deal of potential, especially when the orchestra is in the hands of such an able conductor. But please, leave the cheering in the concert hall, and let us enjoy some great music-making at home, with the appropriate silence following the last bar, so that we might decide ourselves how to react!
 
Kevin Sutton
 

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