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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1945)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-07) [54:44]
Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34 (1887) [15:51]
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Edo de Waart
rec. April 1976, De Doelen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Experience Classicsonline

PentaTone are remastering analogue Philips recordings from the 1960s and 1970s as part of their RQR series. The discs offer both CD and SACD layers, but the emphasis is on surround sound. Quite why these Rotterdam performances were selected for this treatment isn’t clear, as they weren’t front-runners in their LP form. The re-mastered Sir Colin Davis/Berlioz recordings are a different matter entirely; the classic Concertgebouw Symphonie fantastique is already out (PTC 5186 184) and the Requiem is promised for July (PTC 5186 191).
So, is this all-Russian disc worth resurrecting? De Waart’s Rachmaninov is spacious, yet the playing seems strangely flaccid. The cumulative power of the first movement simply isn’t there and those distinctive touches – the lonely cor anglais, for instance – lack the necessary tingle factor. Apart from that there is precious little instrumental detail on either layer. Very odd indeed.
Even though the Rotterdam Philharmonic play eloquently in the Largo – the strings are particularly yearning – they sound bland. And then there’s the curious incident of the timp stroke at the end of this movement. It isn’t in the score but, to be fair, other conductors – Jansons and Steinberg among them – tack it on too. It’s an unnecessary embellishment and, in this case, it’s clumsily executed as well.
Moving on to the second movement the unison horns at the start are just too recessed to make an impact. In fact the perspectives are a problem throughout, the orchestra placed further back than is ideal. This soft-grained sound, combined with de Waart’s lacklustre conducting, results in a performance that’s low in energy and short on excitement.
In the lovely Adagio the rising string theme is beautifully articulated and the ensuing clarinet ‘aria’ produces one of the few thrills on this disc. But that doesn’t even begin to compensate for an otherwise unremittingly dull performance. And although the final movement heralds the arrival of some much-needed drama it turns out to be short lived. Even those powerful, swirling melodies sound unbelievably sluggish.
PentaTone have clearly miscalculated with this release. Yes, there are listeners who crave multichannel Rachmaninov but surely they’d want something a bit more enticing than this? If you’re after a vital, vigorous performance of this symphony – albeit in old-fashioned stereo – try Mariss Jansons and the St Petersburg Philharmonic on EMI Encore 5850752 (or in three CD set – see review) or splash out on the much-admired Yevgeni Svetlanov box (Warner Classics 112238) (see review).
In his centenary year one can only hope that Rimsky-Korsakov gets some worthwhile new recordings. The Capriccio Espagnol certainly isn’t his finest work, but it’s one of his most popular. According to the composer it should ‘glitter with dazzling orchestral colour’, instructions that Jansons and the London Philharmonic take to heart in their fizzing collection of Russian lollipops (EMI 5751722). By contrast the Dutch band sound desperately drab in this work. The too-distant horns struggle to make amends in the Variations, but even at this stage the performance is beyond rescue.
At least the side drum and brass that announce the gypsy song should make one sit up and take notice. Jansons and the LPO manage it easily enough, but then they are aided by a wide-ranging Abbey Road recording. By contrast the Dutch performance is tepid and although it does warm up a little in the Fandango it never comes to the boil.
One likes to find some redeeming features in a recording but as with de Waart’s recent Zarathustra (see review) there simply aren’t any here. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine less inspired performances of these two concert favourites. The liner-notes are adequate but the track listings are inaccurate.
Musically and sonically perverse. Avoid.
Dan Morgan

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