Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Complete Symphonies and Orchestral Works
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 [42:49]
Youth Symphony in D minor [13:57]
CD 2
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 [59:59]
Caprice Bohémien, Op. 12 [16:43]
CD 3
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 [39:04]
Symphonic Poem ‘The Isle of the Dead’, Op. 29 [20:01]
Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14 [6:13]
CD 4
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 [34:30]
Fantasy ‘The Rock’ Op. 7 [13:43]
Symphonic Poem ‘Prince Rostislav’ [15:43]
CD 5
‘Aleko’ - Excerpts [10:02]
Five Études tableaux, orch. Respighi [21:27]
Scherzo in D minor [4:56]
Sydney Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. 31 October - 22 November 2007 (Session and live) Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. DSD
EXTON EXCL-00018 [5 CDs: 56:56 + 76:52 + 65:36 + 64:10 + 40:39]
When he took up conducting - in the 1970s if I remember correctly - among Vladimir Ashkenazy’s first recordings were a highly regarded Sibelius symphony cycle with the Philharmonia and an equally well-received series of recordings of Rachmaninov’s orchestral works with what was then the Concertgebouw. All these recordings were made for Decca.
Over the years Ashkenazy’s conducting activities have increased and there has been a diminution of his work as a concert pianist, though I believe the reduction in his appearances as a pianist is due chiefly to the onset of arthritis, which is a great shame. He’s developed associations with several orchestras, including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, of which he became Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor in 2009. Prior to that appointment he had led the orchestra in a festival of music by Rachmaninov in 2007, of which this collection of CDs is the fruit. A subsequent Elgar festival in 2008 resulted in a further series of discs, which I’ll be reviewing shortly. All Rachmaninov’s major orchestral works are here, though The Bells is a notable and regrettable absentee
Ashkenazy has been a distinguished Rachmaninov pianist and I’d say that, on the evidence of these discs, he’s equally successful in conveying through the baton the spirit of the Russian master’s music. By coincidence while I was appraising these discs I had the opportunity to review a concert in which Ashkenazy directed a very good account of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony and in general I think he obtains similarly good results here. The recordings are described as being “session and live”. That suggests perhaps quite a bit of editing but I didn’t detect any conspicuous edits and the performances cohere. Nonetheless, it seems clear that we’re not hearing genuinely live concert performances. There is no audience noise and the recorded sound is consistently first rate.
The collection opens with a good account of the First Symphony. This is music that needs to be played with conviction, for it does have some weaknesses. The requisite conviction is present here. There’s good vigour in I, though the slower, wistful music, which is first heard from around 2:50, is played delicately and with feeling. The slow movement is atmospheric and the increased broodiness of the music (from 3:03) comes across well. The finale is powerfully projected.
In the Second Symphony Rachmaninov reveals himself as a much more accomplished symphonist. This Sydney performance is a good one - Ashkenazy seems to have the music in his blood and directs with conviction. I enjoyed this reading very much and would rank it not far behind André Previn’s magnificent, benchmark EMI recording with the LSO made in 1973 (review), which is saying something. Ashkenazy obtains a driving account of II and the lyrical sections of this movement are warmly phrased. The principal clarinettist makes a very persuasive job of the great solo at the beginning of III, though Jack Brymer’s voicing and phrasing of this deeply expressive song for Previn is something rather special. In this movement - and, indeed, throughout the symphony - the SSO plays ardently; the strings bring weight and sweep to their long phrases while the woodwind section also offers distinguished playing. 

The Third Symphony is another success. Ashkenazy leads a gripping, dramatic account of I, in which Rachmaninov’s vivid orchestral colours are well brought out. The mood of nostalgia that permeates much of II is nicely conveyed by Ashkenazy. The composer was surely recollecting his homeland and is it fanciful to note that the interpreter here is another musician long exiled from Russia? The central scherzo section of this movement is dispatched with panache. The finale features strong rhythms and in this exciting account the Sydney players demonstrate admirable rhythmic vitality. They also make the most of the several lyrical episodes. I think this is a fine rendition of this symphony. 

In a “blind tasting” a few months ago on MusicWeb International Ashkenazy’s Concertgebouw recording of The Isle of the Dead came out pretty well. His Sydney remake is impressive too. From the start he distils a potent, doom-laden atmosphere. He builds the tension well up to 7:58 and thereafter the extended climax is delivered powerfully. This is a deeply impressive performance. I also liked his Symphonic Dances, even if this performance doesn’t surpass the magnificent Vasily Petrenko version (review). The gorgeous, deeply nostalgic theme in I that’s first heard on the saxophone is presented yearningly by the Sydney orchestra under Ashkenazy’s idiomatic guidance. One senses that the musicians are fully in tune with the ebb and flow of this wonderfully melancholic theme. The more extrovert, energetic passages that bookend the melancholic section are delivered with panache. The spectral waltz in II is invested with a fine sweep while the whole of the final dance is gripping and exciting. If released separately this would be a leading recommendation for this fine work.
But that last comment leads me to what may be a major obstacle for some collectors. The remaining pieces in the set are all played very well indeed but they are less important works than those mentioned in the preceding paragraphs. I imagine these works acted as “fillers” in the various concerts and their inclusion in this set, whilst by no means unwelcome, makes the set a substantial and expensive proposition. In fact, I did a quick calculation and it would have been perfectly feasible to fit all the music in the set onto four CDs by including Respighi’s vibrant orchestrations of the five Études tableaux on disc one and the Aleko items onto either disc three or disc four. Recently I’ve seen this set offered by a UK mail order retailer for just under seventy pounds sterling. Whilst it’s undeniable that the quality of the performances is consistently high, this is pricey. I hope that before too long the discs will be released individually with the content reordered, perhaps, allowing those collectors for whom price is an issue to select the performances they want.
However, having registered the caveat about price, the set represents a fine achievement. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra turns in performances that are consistently excellent and Ashkenazy himself displays a fine feeling for Rachmaninov’s music, leading the performances in a very idiomatic way. When one adds in the fact that the recorded sound is extremely fine then this is a most attractive package. The quality of this set suggests that the partnership between Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony may turn out to be very fruitful.
John Quinn
A most attractive collection of Rachmaninov’s orchestral music.