Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1908) [54:05]
Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 (1915) [6:38]
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin

rec. Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA, 24–27 September 2009
NAXOS 8.572458 [60:43]
A successful performance of almost any major Rachmaninov work will leave the listener thinking that the music is better than it really is. In the case of the E minor Symphony, the performers must somehow disguise the episodic nature of each of the movements, the work being, in effect, a series of glorious moments connected by frequently rather contrived transitions. Something has to be done, too, about those passages where the level of inspiration falls below the line - the middle section of the finale, for example. The success of the whole work rests on melody. It is full of big tunes, ardent and surging, but these are constructed for the most part using stepwise motion, with rising sequences employed to increase tension. If we are not to think this artificial, a no-holds-barred attitude has to be adopted.
Leonard Slatkin’s way with these big tunes, almost always played by the violins or massed strings, is to keep cool and bring out the counter-melodies. The trouble is that these counter-melodies, played by the horns or other members of the wind band, are often little more than undistinguished figuration designed to enrich the harmony and texture. The second theme of the first movement gets this treatment. It is also given very slowly, both in relation to the main tempo of the movement and to the composer’s metronome mark. In fact Slatkin, like many conductors, is quite cavalier about the composer’s markings throughout the performance. How revealing it would be, just once, to hear a Rachmaninov performance wherein every crescendo or tempo change began exactly at the point indicated by the composer! There are a few odd balances in the development section of this same movement, and that after a slow introduction which is grim and menacing where dark melancholy is what we usually expect. Rachmaninov marked the exposition to be repeated, but Slatkin ignores this; there can be no argument, in the early twentieth century, that this was merely a convention. Perhaps he was worried about the audience’s attention span, because – and there is no indication anywhere of this – this is a live recording. The audience is in fact commendably quiet until the inevitable final cheers.
The second movement is taken very fast, to the point of sounding rushed and breathless, especially the middle section with its short brass band interlude. The principal clarinettist plays the long solo in the slow movement beautifully, but many will wish the instrument had been more prominent in the overall texture. Subsidiary parts are again brought out when this theme returns towards the end of the movement. The finale is brilliantly played, but there is little feeling that the final pages represent the culmination of any kind of symphonic journey, and not much excitement is generated.
Listening to this performance, one doesn’t get the feeling that the conductor is totally convinced by the work, still less that he loves it. Gennadi Rozhdestvensky though, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in 1988 (reissued on the super-budget label Regis) plays the work for all it is worth, perhaps for more than it is worth. He leaves one convinced that it is a masterpiece. He caresses and cajoles, and his control of phrasing, pulse and texture is immensely subtle. He consistently finds the right tempo – taking significantly more time in all four movements than Slatkin – and the music always has time to breathe, even in the faster passages.
Another fine performance is, perhaps surprisingly, that by James Loughran and the Hallé Orchestra from 1973, available in EMI’s Classics for Pleasure series (5755652). The Free Trade Hall recording is inferior to that for either Rozhdestvensky or Slatkin, with considerably less orchestral detail, and you don’t get the exposition repeat. But the conductor’s view of the piece is totally convincing and the orchestra play like heroes. Much as I admire both these performances, the finest on my shelves, and perhaps the finest I have ever heard, is neither of these, but one recorded in 1994 and issued free with the BBC Music Magazine (BBC MM127, 1994, Vol. III No. 3). The BBC Philharmonic is conducted by the late Edward Downes. It is a reading of extraordinary conviction and stature, and should certainly be made more widely available.
The orchestral playing on Slatkin’s Detroit performance is brilliant throughout, but there is a sheen to the sound which is far removed from anything Russian. The reading is cool and efficient, missing out on much of the tenderness, melancholy and excitement which other interpreters have found in the work. Many finer performances are available – one shouldn’t forget Previn’s reading on EMI – but for my money few are as fine as Rozhdestvensky’s. You won’t get any extra music – though Slatkin’s performance of the lovely Vocalise is hardly going to make any real difference – but you will want to stand and cheer at the end, probably even more loudly than the Detroit audience does.
William Hedley
Fine playing, but more satisfying versions are available … see Full Review