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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 1 in D minor op. 13 (1896) [50:01]
Caprice Bohemien op. 12 (1894) [18:09]
Scherzo in D minor [5:02]
Symphony No. 2 in E minor op. 27 (1907) [64:11]
The Rock op. 7 (1893) [14:03]
Symphony No. 3 in A minor op. 44 (1936) [44:17]
The Isle of the Dead op. 29 (1907) [22:53]
State Symphony Orchestra of the Russian Federation/Evgeny Svetlanov
rec. Grand Radio Hall, Moscow, 2-7 October 1995. DDD
Evgeny Svetlanov Official Edition. No. 1 (volumes 8-10)
WARNER MUSIC FRANCE 5101 12238-2 [3 CDs: 73:31 + 78:30 + 67:27]

This set of 1995 recordings by Svetlanov and the State Symphony Orchestra of the Russian Federation (what used to be the USSRSO) has been prepared for the Svetlanov-adoring French market. It's a mark of their discriminating good taste and I simply hope that Warners have the staying power to continue the series across what is a massive archive of the conductor's recordings. The text for this set is in French with English translations.
These are recordings new to the UK catalogue although it is difficult to keep track since there are also I think Svetlanov cycles from the 1970s and 1980s. You can still track down his first efforts on a deleted BMG Melodiya twofer in which the timings (including an exciting but grievously cut Second) are 1. 47:25 from 1966 - 2. 53:49 from 1964 and - 3. 41:48 from 1962. The present Second is nothing short of radiant, throbbing with adrenaline-soaked romantic spirit.
Of the legion competition I can claim only fragmentary knowledge but Rozhdestvensky teamed with the most consistently inspirational of the London's orchestras in the Second Symphony is a recipe for something special and so it proves! There are some great Rachmaninov Seconds out there including some surprising entries which I will mention below but this one benefits from very high adrenaline saturation.
Of the various Seconds 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. It stands very much at the other pole from Svetlanov and Rozhdestvensky. Rozhdestvensky combines the best of the revered Previn version on EMI but without the smeared and haloed 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 on EMI sounds more natural but lacks the impetuosity of Cura and the flammable spontaneity of Svetlanov or Rozhdestvensky. 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. This plays for 67:21. Sanderling coaxes and caresses every note and relishes every bar. His orchestra sounds voluptuously ample and the strings sing and seethe remarkably well. He reminded me of Ormandy whose collection of all three Rachmaninov symphonies can be had on Sony. Despite the long playing time Sanderling weighs and shapes the phrases and momentum with experienced judgement. He is hamstrung only by an arthritic finale. Despite his impeccable Russian credentials Downes and the BBC PO did not grip my attention. Another British conductor, Vernon Handley on Tring, is outstanding but there's a conductor who has strong Russian sympathies and who publicly cherishes the prospect of recording Prokofiev 6 if only someone would be enlightened enough to offer him the opportunity.
The Third Symphony is the least glamorous of the performances. It's more open textures and soloistic orchestration is well trapped by the Russian engineers. However it is just that bit too deliberate to be among the best.
The resonance of the acoustic, the bark and abrasion of the brass, the rolling golden blare of the horns, the untiring silver-tungsten tone of the violins make these versions of the symphonies fine examples of Svetlanov's inspirational way with Rachmaninov. No matter how meticulously they may be prepared these readings impact on the listener as a series of there-and-then instinctive spontaneous reactions to the scores with an orchestra hard-wired into the conductor's psyche. Every corner is packed with interest and emotional portent.
The attack and unanimity is overpowering as in the grand and massive string entry in the Symphony No. 1 first movement at 5:50. Svetlanov's way with a score is comparable to the greats on a good day - Monteux in the Vanguard LSO Tchaikovsky 5 is a good example. Glazunov who conducted the heartbreakingly disastrous premiere of Rachmaninov 1 learnt lessons which he built into the festive finale of his own Eighth Symphony. While there is something of the grand parade in the famous trish-trash punched-out finale this is power-house music-making that will leave fine readings by Ashkenazy and Jansons seeming anaemic.
The first disc ends with a soulful Caprice Bohemien and a Russo-Mendelssohnian scherzo. The Rock is colourful in a brooding Balakirev and Russian nationalist way while brooding is taken to new depths with a potent Isle of the Dead.
There's no escaping it, Svetlanov is an exciting conductor and you either love his Stokowskian glare and sumptuous textures or you will regard it is as irredeemably vulgar. I love it.
Rob Barnett


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