Comparative reviews of 10 unidentified performances of Rachmaninov's
Isle of the Dead by three MusicWeb reviewers.
The letters pages of the January International Record Review
carried a suggestion from St John Brown that reviewers might be
prejudiced simply by knowing who the performers were and wondered
if the time had come for reviewers to review blind. In the February
issue in a followup letter Colin Jagger agreed that a lot of reviewers
seemed to be swayed by pedigree. It was also noted that blind
reviewing was actually carried out was on France Musiques's programme
La tribune des critiques de disques with a panel of three
reviewers comparing 6 anonymous performances of a work. Their
discussions enhanced an understanding of the work.
I offered the idea to MusicWeb reviewers as an experiment and
below we have comparisons of 10 performances of Rachmaninov's
tone poem The Isle of the Dead by Ian Lace, Nick Barnard
and Ralph Moore. Would the established favourites and front runners
maintain their place?
The discs offered were
A BBCPhil Noseda Chandos CHAN 10475 [20:21]
B Paris Conservatoire Orchestra Ansermet Australian
Eloquence 480044 [19:20]
C LSO Previn EMI 2376162 [21:11]
D RLPO Petrenko Avie AV2188 [21:10]
E BBCSO Svetlanov BBCLegends BBCL4259-2 [24:20]
F Concertgebouw Ashkenazy Decca Australian Eloquence
G RPO Batiz Naxos 8.550583 [23:13]
H Russian National Orchestra Pletnev DG4630752
I CSO Reiner RCA 09026 612502 [20:01]
J BBC Welsh Otaka Nimbus NI5344 [21:51]
I will confess to a great liking and admiration for this Rachmaninoff
symphonic poem. I first came across it many years ago when I purchased
an LP of Fritz Reiner’s 1957 recording with the Chicago Symphony
Orchestra released on the RCA label. I seem to recall being very
impressed with the reproduction of Arnold
Böcklin’s famous brooding picture depicting ‘a solitary oarsman,
[possibly] Charon, the ferryman of the dead of Greek mythology
who rows the dead across the River Styx on their journey to the
Underworld and to the crags and cliffs of the ominous Island of
the Dead of Böcklin’s imagination’. Since then I have accumulated
a number of recordings of this work but I still retain an affection
for this Reiner recording for its atmosphere and dramatic intensity
(I have the RCA Victor 09026 61250 2 edition).
One of the most fascinating recordings of the Isle of the Dead
is that by Rachmaninoff himself. I came across this when I acquired
the marvellous 10 CD box set ‘Sergei Rachmaninoff – The Complete
Recordings’ published in 1992. (Rachmaninoff, like Elgar, Walton
and others spent a lot of time in the recording studios recording
his own works and, in the case of Rachmaninoff, works of many
other composers). Rachmaninoff recorded his Isle of the Dead
in 1929 with The Philadelphia Orchestra. Interestingly, Rachmaninoff
delivers this reading in 18:06 mins, appreciably faster (perhaps
taking into account the exigencies of the old 78rpm recording
format?) than some of the modern recordings we are blind reviewing
yet the composer’s viewpoint is atmospheric enough and there is
a blazing dramatic and emotional intensity here. The sound is
good for its age.
Each of the recordings I have has a satisfactory note although
there are one or two inconsistencies. One note writer seems to
suggest that The Isle of the Dead was composed in 1907
instead of 1909 and another suggests that Charon is rowing the
body across to an island in a lake. I particularly liked David
Brown’s notes for the DG Pletnev album and Christopher Palmer’s
for Ashkenazy’s Decca recording. Brown comments, ‘Rachmaninoff
first saw the painting in a black-and-white reproduction, and
he confessed this image impressed him more than the original.
The colours mitigated the image, he felt, and when scoring The
Isle of the Dead he used a notably narrow colour range which
together with the piece’s monolithic structure provides an almost
claustrophobic intensity…’ Palmer adds, ‘The motivic kernel is
Rachmaninoff’s familiar vademecum, the Dies Irae plainchant.
From this, and from the 5/8 rhythm which represents the waters
lapping and the rocking of the boat, arises virtually the entire
substance of the music…’
What I look for in a good recording of The Isle of
Recordings that impress me must first of all have a dramatic and
emotional intensity. Pacing and atmosphere is important too; I
like readings that encourage my imagination to fly; after all,
this work, and Böcklin’s painting, should encourage conductors
to be inventive and imaginative. I look for interesting little
nuances, shadings, phrasings; and aspects of tempi and dynamics
that add to the aural picture. I have to say at this point that
my next few remarks are entirely subjective based on how I visualize
the work as it progresses. I want an evocative opening, I want
a vivid evocation of that boat making its way to the island through
gloom and fog and that first glimpse of the forbidding Isle. I
want to get some idea of the former life of the deceased. I want
to feel the being’s (maybe it is female?) joys and fears. Then
come those heavy staccato chords - bang, bang, bang-bang-bang-bang
about three quarters of the way through the work. I like to think
of these as perhaps the death situation or, more interestingly,
Judgement? The clear statements of the Dies Irae, soon
afterwards, for me, indicate what that Judgement was and the final
passage as the ferryman pulls away from the Isle should not only
be evocative but it should also indicate something of the soul’s
destiny. Fanciful? Perhaps, but that’s what I am looking for and
in some instances I reckon I found it amongst these ten readings.
Listening to ten recordings without knowing who made them is a
daunting task. The only way to tackle it I thought was to make
notes as I listened to be recalled and written up at leisure later.
So here goes.
Listening to a repeated sequence of performances of Rachmaninov’s
symphonic poem Isle of the Dead Op.29 leads me to one conclusion
above all others – it is an unassailable masterpiece. I cannot
think of another Romantic composer who shows such mastery of the
orchestra while writing comparatively little for it. Strip away
the three symphonies, a couple of early tone poems and three choral
items and all that is left (ignoring the concertante works) is
this work and the late Symphonic Dances. Yet total compositional
assurance oozes from every bar of the work. The orchestration
is for a fairly standard extended romantic orchestra with triple
woodwind (including all important dark-hued cor anglais, bass
clarinet and contrabassoon), standard three trumpets, three trombones
and tuba, a slight luxury in having six horns but only a single
harp, almost no percussion and standard strings. This is pretty
much identical to many of Delius’s orchestras and Suk’s Asrael
Symphony but nothing like as opulent as contemporary orchestrations
by Strauss or Mahler. I stress that point only to show how Rachmaninov
creates his very own unique sound-world using very standard instrumentational
tools. For interested readers I would guide them to the orchestral
score of the work that is freely available on the marvellous IMSLP
Since timings between versions differ (although often not by that
much) any key points in the score are referred to by the rehearsal
letters in this version of the score.
In Rachmaninov’s oeuvre this represents a transitional work. Both
musically and intellectually he is moving away from the youthful
passion and ardour of the first two symphonies towards music of
a more questing and questioning nature. Part of his genius is
the way in which he is able to combine so successfully the ‘story’
in this work while at the same time making it – in effect – a
study in the musical potential of the Dies Irae chant which
haunts so many of his works. It is well documented that the initial
stimulus for the work came when Rachmaninov saw a black and white
reproduction of the Böcklin painting ‘Der Toteninsel’ in 1907.
In this picture a small rowing-boat is seen approaching a volcanic
island which looms out of the sea. At the prow of the boat stands
a figure shrouded in white. Famously, Rachmaninov was less impressed
when he eventually saw the original coloured painting – a reaction
which gives us a clue to sound-world he wished to create. For
all the scale of the instrumentation and the lushness of the writing
there is an austerity at the heart of this work that should not
be ignored. I’m not sure Rachmaninov could write a work without
a melody but certainly this piece has none of the long-limbed
lines of the then recent Second Symphony. For sure there
are extended lyrical lines, but they tend to be extensions and
evolutions of short motivic material. By choice Rachmaninov is
paring away his musical palette.
The remit of these comparative reviews is not to play ‘spot the
interpretation’. Instead it is for the reviewer to pick the performance
that impresses them the most without pre-conception or bias. Any
listener hearing a piece they know will have a sense of what they
want from a performance. The interpretations that have the greatest
impact will be, by definition, either those that most closely
conform to that mind’s ear ideal or one that radically
redefines that listener’s expectations. It is to be hoped that
the quality of the recording will aid the performers in conveying
the power and detail of their interpretation. Structurally this
work is quite a challenge for conductors. The average timing is
just over the twenty minute mark. The opening depicts the rocking
of the waves and the pulling of the oars by a subtly varying division
of a 5/8 metre. Rachmaninov is a composer who likes to micro-manage
his performers. Barely a bar will go by without some instruction
regarding attack, dynamic or phrasing. Yet remarkably (and this
is really remarkable) there is no variation at all in the given
tempo indication – Lento – until the 21st page of this
69 page score. Does any conductor dare keep the underlying 1/8
note (quaver) pulse exactly the same over such an extended period?
Another paradox – the Lento marked mentioned above is caveated
by tempo indication of crochet (quarter note) = 60. In effect
this means two quavers every second which gives the work a pulse
that again seems contrary to the Lento (slow) marking. In programmatic
terms the structure of the work is quite clear. The extended opening
sequence portrays the approach of the boat rowed by Charon portrayed
by the steady pulling on the oars in the 5/8 rhythm mentioned
above. Fragments of the Dies Irae chant for the dead hover
in and around the texture giving the music a sense of a foreboding
calm. Gradually the instrumentation rises (it takes 4 pages of
score for any instrument to play a single note an octave higher
than middle C). At rehearsal figure 3 an uneasy chromatic figuration
disturbs the oar motif. This passage always reminds me of similar
figurations in Rachmaninov’s Francesca da Rimini opera
of 1904 where it represents the eternal winds of hell and symbolises
Dante’s epigraph “there is no greater sorrow in the world than
remembering happy times when one is unhappy”. I mention that here
because it seems to hold the key for the central extended portion
of the tone poem. In preparation for the slight push to the tempo
at rehearsal figure 9 Rachmaninov increases the amount of rhythmic
activity in the preceding pages. This passage is where Rachmaninov
takes us out of the world of the painting and represents the soul’s
agitation at that which has been lost. This is an extremely tricky
passage to bring off because it needs to build very gradually
over the best part of 13 pages of score. During this sequence
there is a glorious passage when the isle is revealed in all its
imposing craggy grandeur (5 bars after figure 11) and Charon’s
oar motif reasserts itself for the final pull into shore. Another
key moment occurs 9 bars after figure 14. The brass intone a fate
motif (based as ever on the Dies Irae). This – in my imagination
at least – represents Death itself; “the road that each must travel”
to quote Holst’s Savitri. Within those pages there
are episodic elements but the overall effect has to be cumulative
until we arrive the central panel of the work in E flat and the
beat becomes a more even 3/4 time. Rachmaninov wrote to Stokowski
regarding this passage; “it should be a great contrast to all
the rest of the work – faster, more nervous and more emotional
– as that [sic] passage does not belong to the ‘picture’, it is
in reality a ‘supplement’ to the picture – which fact makes the
contrast all the more necessary. In the former is death – in the
latter is life.” Here it seems to me the soul both grieves for
what is lost and rails against what will be – it is a cauldron
of musical passion. Within this section there are two main climaxes.
Out of the second builds a surging string led figure (having given
no tempi direction for 21 pages before now Rachmaninov urges his
players on with various piu vivo (a tad ironically one
feels since that literally means with more life) twice, Allegro
molto, and even a piu vivo e poco a poco accelerando e
crescendo until the crisis is reached at figure 22 with the
whole orchestra at their highest and loudest before all is dismissed
with three abrupt musical gestures. Twenty or so bars of transitional
material obsessing on fragments of the Dies Irae bring
us back to the brass’ gently implacable fate motif before Charon
returns to the oar motif and rows away from the Isle leaving the
soul there for eternity.
My reason for writing in some detail is to illuminate the nominal
check-list I have of key moments in the composition that a successful
performance must illuminate. What has become clear listening to
these ten performances is that none are bad. Indeed, pretty much
any would be satisfying as an individual choice when listened
to in isolation. However the best are those that create a clear
and logical musical arc that pulls the listener forward through
the narrative. In this some performances feel more sectionalised
and ultimately less compelling. After some thought I’ve decided
that a sequence of bullet points for each review is probably the
most succinct way of providing easy comparisons with a general
conclusion at the end.
I was initially daunted by the idea of attempting to compare
as many as ten versions of this stupendous tone poem, but in the
event I have to say that I found it both remarkably enjoyable
and remarkably reassuring how easily I was able to decide upon
a hierarchy of quality.
The opening of this piece is crucial: a mood of grim inevitability
must grip the listener, who should see and hear Charon’s oars
dip steadily, in relentless 5/8 time, into the black waters of
the Styx, as per the mysterious painting by Arnold Böcklin. Rachmaninov
saw it in 1907 and it inspired him to compose his musical evocation
the following year. If the rhythm is too fleet and the craft drifts
unsteadily, the requisite mood is lost. While this piece is episodic,
with identifiable interludes as the soul reminisces and struggles
to make sense of its fate, there must be an over-arching sense
of shape to unify the experience; some of the performances in
the ten I listened to fall into the trap of stressing transient
drama at the expense of musical unity, while others simply fail
rise above a timid fidelity to the score and deliver no punch
at crucial points.
My ten versions quickly and neatly resolved themselves into three
unoriginal, but serviceable, broad categories: four excellent,
three mediocre and three poor discs.
Disk A The
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra Noseda Chandos CHAN 10475 rec 2008
Ralph Moore: Disc A is in slick, over-reverberant sound
which lacks detail. The orchestral playing veers between routine
and poor: there are tuning difficulties in both the horns and
the woodwind and fences are rushed. The conductor has two modes:
loud and soft with little gradation in between. Climaxes are
rushed and muddled. There is no real overview here and opportunities
to make musical points are blithely passed over.
Modern digital recording – extreme dynamic
range and inner detail – almost synthetically detailed. Some
instrumental details register here as on none of the other
Flowing speed but little menace or sense
The ‘reveal’ of the Isle underplayed –
Transition into E flat ‘the soul’s backward
yearning’ has little of the urgency alluded to in the letter
to Stokowski. Lacks febrile passion or sense of cumulative
Final departure of Charon’s boat again
fluent and too easy.
Excellent orchestral playing but overall
impact very disappointing – a superficial interpretation.
Ian Lace: A
Nice opening with emphatic timps and a low-register harp nicely
evoking the scene as the boat glides through darkness and gloom
– I say glides because I do not get a strong impression of oars
being used here. Not important, it seems to work. At 3:19 the
notion of rowing is now more pronounced even if there is no strong
impression of moving water. The build-up of tension and its subsequent
relaxation is impressive and at 4:30 one senses a slight swaying
of boat and a little later of breezes over the waters. Out of
the mist at around 8:00, the Isle revealed very emphatically.
The personal memories of the soul are treated sympathetically
and persuasively; the climax roles nicely over the orchestra and
terraces naturally and peaks excitingly. The Dies Irae
episode plods a little but it is nicely mysterious and menacing
yet there is, too, a beguiling sense of pathos that helps round
out the character painting of this soul. The sound is warm and
clear, with good perspectives and imaging.
Altogether an attractive Isle of the Dead this one.
Disc B L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Ansermet Australian Eloquence 480044 rec 1954 [19:20]
Pre-existing review by Rob
Sounds like the oldest recording sampled.
Lots of analogue hiss and general bumps and thumps that would
not have registered on older systems. Some internal detail totally
lost but other instruments notably the 1st clarinet
and trumpet cut through well. Distinctive timbre to these instruments
would suggest a continental orchestra (very woody clarinet and
Basic tempo fast and restless. Too fast
for my taste but tempo well sustained and built on into the
The fate theme is menacing but instrumental
balance poor – too much upper line. This passage needs sepulchral
The E flat section is played impulsively
with rubato – this causes the strings quite a few ensemble problems.
Good intensity though even if basic tempo here is too close
to opening – not unleashed enough.
The return to the 5/8 rowing motif rather
abrupt and again the sense of loss and grief minimised.
Overall quite an individual interpretation but not a great
one. Sonic limitations rule it out unless it is of particular
historical significance for some collectors
B Another fast-paced reading. The opening captures
the ear with more than usually intricate rhythms making for
an unusual beginning filling in the picture as depicted by
Boeklin with more detail. Very atmospheric and evocative.
Instrumental detail good – brass sharp and incisive ppp
detail good also fine hairpin pizzicatos. 5:00 Journey
towards the Island, seems cooler more detached, rowing figures
more pronounced as if to underline the soul’s fate. Harp figures
suggest mist clearing, nice touch; and the mystery of the
Island is subtly suggested. Climax as island revealed is impressive.
Soul’s life seems to be a pleading for mercy, we note its
vulnerability and its suffering, yes suffering, and there
is passionate pleading plus turbulence with the brass defiant.
Dies Irae supplicating; the Tchaikovsky-influence is
strong. Again rhythmically interesting ending as the boat
pulls away and the soul’s plight remembered.
B is compromised by the sound: disc B is in hissy, strident
mono but is a reading of such integrity and musicality that
it transcends those limitations. So much is striking here:
the pungent woodwind, the impeccable intonation, the prominent
harps, the eerie blare of the muted trumpets: detail after
detail delights. I would not choose it as a final recommendation
given its sonic limitations, and it is a touch brisk overall
at 19:20, but it successfully captures a nightmarish, nervy
quality which is really convincing.
Disc C LSO Previn EMI 2376162
no pre-existing review on MusicWeb
Ian Lace: C 21:11 Another interesting opening; this
time the rowing figures are accentuated with lower woodwind
and brass spotlit emphasising an atmosphere of foreboding
but it is a tad over-egged this effect. Instrumental ensemble
very good. Detail and spacial effect good; brass excellent,
little felicities like movement of the waters impress. Sound
very good. Reading sags somewhat around 6:00. Island approach
OK if a bit heavy-handed without the finesse of other readings.
Soul’s story is sympathetically told with good brass, a pleading
reading interweaving string parts especially good and contouring
nicely handled leading to a good assertive climax. Tchaikovsky-Romeo
& Juliet-like figures build-up to a rousing climax and
the Dies Irae unfolds gently with brass over a heavy
string tread and agitated mid strings implying anxiety at
the soul’s ultimate fate yet a woodwind figure suggests mercy
and forgiveness. One feels the soul’s anguish and supplication
as the boat pulls away with a mainly even rhythm while Dies
Irae sounds sweeter; maybe all will be well for soul.
Or will it, for the final chords are dark indeed? A characterful
Ralph Moore: Disc C proceeds in a mode which appears
to be a pale homage to Ashkenazy’s famous reading, but the
perfunctory, low-key reading, caught in a hollow, boomy remastering
is not very persuasive and fails to generate much excitement.
The reprise of the opening theme provides some vulgar excitement
but the miscalculation in going for broke prematurely means
that little is left for the “big tune” in the nostalgic section.
Very good analogue recording. Rich bass and
smooth refined strings. Not all detail registers but somehow
this feels more authentic in a concert hall sense.
The balance between primary and secondary
material (this is a busy and detailed score) is very good.
Beautiful solo for the 2 desks of 1st
violins (I imagine this as the soul striving upwards). Most
recordings struggle with this both instrumentally – intonation
and ensemble a real issue - and balance. Some conductors/producers
sound as though this become a full section passage, others focus
on the leader alone. This is one of the few versions where it
is clearly 2 desks and comfortable.
Lovely powerful string sonority – the strings
dig in as Charon rows again after the ‘Isle reveal’.
The musical collapse into the fate theme
really well controlled and the brass balance here perfect
Initial transition into the ‘soul’ music
a little disappointing but the steadier tempo here allows for
a whipping up of the tension into the 1st big climax
in this section and sustaining the tension into the 2nd
Excellent pacing back to the rowing motif
and the departure movingly done.
Not necessarily my ‘mind’s ear ideal’ but
well played, engineered, and conceived performance. Impressive
Disc D: Royal
Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Petrenko Avie AV2188 rec 2008/09
pre-existing review John
Ralph Moore: This is my ultimate choice: a miracle
of interpretation and sonically superlative. Its timing (20:55),
phrasing, control and understanding of the dynamic relationship
between the disparate sections are all ideal. As much as I
enjoyed the other three discs in my top category, this was
the only one to give me genuine goose bumps as I listened.
This is passionate, thrilling orchestral direction and playing,
from the overwhelming tragedy of the soul’s agony to the searing
poignancy of the central section, full of yearning nostalgia
for times past. Every mood is embraced from febrile panic
to desperate regret; no other version manages this kind of
range. When, in the music’s closing stages, the hammer blows
which seal the soul’s fate yield to pitiless ticking of a
universal clock, the effect is intensely dramatic and the
listener is made to appreciate anew the wonder of this extraordinary
Wide ranging modern digital recording. Nice
rich projection from the string basses – perhaps a fraction
too much in overall balance. Lowering low brass.
Good sense of menace and grief. Basic tempo
a fraction fast for my ideal. Upper strings a little synthetically
forward in the mix. General highlighting of solo lines diminishes
Cumulative build well paced although becomes
a little becalmed after initial sense of forward movement.
Very good two desk solo – sweet and expressive.
I don’t feel the tempi grow out of each
other, this feels slightly sectionalised – I prefer one long
Powerful ‘isle reveal’ and renewed urgency
– this section is very impressive. Too prominent woodwind suddenly
sounds outsized in context – a shame. Again, the following link
into the ‘fate’ theme the temperature drops and things become
Good fate and urgent E flat section – certainly
captures the neurosis implicit in Rachmaninov’s letter. This
passage well built and sustained – good brass detail, very exciting
Build to second climax for some reason taken
at much steadier tempo. Well sustained and very well played
but again does not grow logically from what came before.
One of the best brusque abrupt climaxes
before the Dies Irae linking passage.
Final section not as grief laden as some – more serene and
peaceful. Very beautiful but not ‘right’ in my mind.
Ian Lace: D 21:10
A slow quiet opening with a nice bloom on brass; brass’s building
and diminishing volumes impress in the background; nice perspectives
low woods good rowing rhythms with a hint of dread. At 4:50
there is an interesting feeling of slipperiness attached to
the movements across the waters and, one imagines, a momentary
imbalance of the boat; plus a poignancy for the plight of
the soul against the boat’s progress. At the Island approach
the music grows mysterious and slippery again; these are treacherous
and dangerous even menacing, hellish nightmarish images. The
rowing rhythms are very heavily accented with loud timp rolls
and bass drum thuds. At 10:12 woodwinds are very descriptive
soul’s despair. Soul’s personality very romantically and passionately
described; a turbulent life excitingly unfolds. 15:45 and
those crashing ‘Judgment’ staccato chords are set closer together;
there is an unusual definiteness about this judgement, harsh.
Dies Irae at first is cold and calculated even dispassionate
but the music then unfolds sympathetically and seems to ask
for mercy for this soul. The departing boat’s rhythm consistent
and the Dies Irae now very sweet over softly swirling
waters. Powerful stuff.
Disc E BBCSO Svetlanov BBCLegends
BBCL4259-2 rec 1999 [24:20]
pre-existing review John
Uniquely powerful. Live analogue recording.
Noisy audience and the slowest comparative version by some way.
Good concert hall balance – most necessary
detail registers well
Fantastic weary heavy oar strokes in initial
5/8 section. Full of foreboding and menace. The brass lines
representing the isle appear out of the hellish murk and subside
with superb musical theatricality.
The tempo is allowed to gradually flow forward.
NOT as Rachmaninov marks but how well this works.
Two desk solo not as sweet as some.
It is the continuity and single span of
this version that works so well. The build into the ‘isle reveal’
better sustained than any other version here.
Tempo keeps moving on, the initial slow
speed paying dividends as it gives ‘headroom’ for this build
to work without the music becoming gabbled.
The relaxing back to the ‘fate’ theme coloured
by superbly menacing snarling muted horns. Fate not as sonorous
or well balanced as some.
Big slow up into E flat section and then
positively languorous initial treatment. Directly contrary to
Rachmaninov’s instructions but here passion is replaced by poignancy
and the strings sustain the saturated climaxes with total conviction.
Cathartic climaxes – Scriabineque in their opulence.
The two main climaxes (and the approach
to them) far more unleashed particularly the first. Real sense
of the orchestra working at full tilt – very exciting and powerful
Proper pause into Dies Irae linking
passage – nicely menacing muted horns and heavy weary pizzicato
tread - the final fate motif heavy and portentous.
Return to the rowing motif sinks down into
weary resignation – this is surely how this passage should be;
loss, regret and resignation fading out to eternity and oblivion.
Stunningly individual and compelling version – the musical
arch better delineated than any other version.
Ian Lace: E
This recording registers just over 25 mins. My first thoughts:
would this be a ponderous and torpid reading? Hardly, I was
pleasantly surprised at what turned out, for me, to be a rather
unusual and thoughtful reading.
[Some way in I thought I detected a clattering – was this
some music stand being upset or was it a coughing but it did
make me think that this could be a live recording, then the
applause at the end confirmed this was so.]
The live recording, the deliberate slow pacing, the imaginative
reading and the careful structuring and building-up of the
music plus the fact that you could hear every instrument so
clearly in such well defined sound made me think of Celibidace
and the presence of so many little interesting and evocative
nuances and felicities seemed to confirm my theory but I am
not sure if he recorded this work? Maybe this is one of the
BBC recordings, the one with Svetlanov perhaps? The sound
is very good: warm and immediate.
This reading seemed to me to suggest that the corpse in the
boat was feminine, why not? For example, early on, around
about 6 minutes, the upper strings are very sweetly mournfully
elegiac and later on in the reflective passages on the corpse’s
life, the music unfolds slowly gracefully, not masterfully.
This to my ears is music of tender pleading and vulnerability
before the passionate stormy yet, it seems to me, still slightly
submissive climax. The Dies Irae music has a marked
nervousness and a distinctive tremolando in the lower register
of the upper strings - violas (? I haven’t got the score).
The opening music depicting the Charon, the ferryman rowing
the soul of the dead across the mist-shrouded waters is so
wonderfully evocative. Overall there is a sense of doom and
pervasive dread but there are too these wonderful little sound
pictures, the fixed rhythm of the oars, the little eddies,
whirls and ripples of dark oily waters.
Rather too drawn out? Possibly but for me an interesting,
unusual and thought-provoking performance; one I could definitely
listen to again
Ralph Moore: E
disc E, which was the only live recording. I do not disqualify
it for that reason but rather because it is a coarse, clumsy,
elephantine reading lasting a draggy 24:20, wholly lacking in
momentum and poorly played.
Disc F Concertgebouw
Ashkenazy Decca Australian Eloquence 4706752 rec 1983 [21:10]
no pre-existing review on MusicWeb
Ralph Moore: Disc F (20:45) enjoys a huge dynamic
range: the cellos, double basses and bassoon growl away satisfyingly
beneath the waterline, the trumpets snarl savagely and the
upper strings sing like demented choirs. In no other account
do the oars dip so implacably into the wine-dark sea; the
control of the surge and flow in this epic journey is masterly.
Flowing tempo but not superficial.
Really excellent digital recording – good
detail but the lines are convincingly integrated and relate
to each other. The muted horns glint like light reflected on
waves; peripheral but there.
Lovely dark sonorities – great sense of
Superb brass, really well integrated as
Two desk solo lacks mystery and too muscular
– the first miscalculation – it should appear like a wraith
of mist out of the texture not cut through as here.
Massed string playing superb – this must
be a top notch orchestra.
Piu Mosso has real urgency, again
superb strings and sonorous brass.
The return of the rowing motif not quite
as implacable as some but the build to the collapse before fate
Fate motif superb – balanced from the bottom
of the brass section up as it should be.
E flat section febrile (amazing how many
conductors grunt through this passage!) and passionate. The
tempo really pushes on but the players are more than equal to
Superbly resonant powerful first climax
and thrillingly horn led build to shattering second climax.
Tempo held more through this than some versions but key is the
cumulative power which is here in spades.
Dies Irae link funereal and oppressive and return
to the rowing motif effective but I would still like a steadier
tempo here. When quick as here the sense of finality and oblivion
F 21:10 An atmospheric and incisive opening with heavy
bass bassoon and timps emphasizing the steady rhythm of the
oars. Early impression is that these waters are dangerous,
one has the impression of black swirling waters, and mocking
seagulls. High strings comment coldly and dispassionately;
hardly a sweet atmosphere. Very wide, good front to back sound
perspectives Rowing rhythms pronounced; an atmosphere of dread
heightened as the Isle is approached – a feeling of overwhelming
bulk. A fine transition to the personal, nicely indicative
of vulnerability, especially evocative, are the strings and
woodwinds. The music seems sympathetic to the plight of the
departed - another female soul? There is torment but also
a grace here and passion, growing in emotional intensity.
A nicely nuanced reading altogether faster and a hasty judgement
at about 15:45 Dies Irae at 16:00 and on might indicate
an atonement for sins. The horns tone leaves us feeling sorry
for this soul and the ferryman pulls away softly as the dying
Dies Irae seem to sound consolatory. Another good reading.
Disc G RPO Batiz
Naxos 8.550583 [23:13]
no pre-existing review on MusicWeb
Recording not as wide ranging as some (some
analogue hiss?) and not as rich in the bass which is a disadvantage
in a work whose orchestral colouration comes from the bass up.
Harp unduly prominent throughout.
Average tempo – well played but lacks the
oppressive doom-laden atmosphere of the best versions.
Emotionally flat and if anything the basic
tempo seems to drop, a significant sagging in intensity.
Two desk solo sounds as if played by the
whole section – far too dominant and attention grabbing.
Piu Mosso section fails to take wing
and move forward enough.
Isle reveal OK but then the rowing figure
in the strings lacks the urgency – that sense of one last big
effort will bring the boat to shore – although the climax before
the collapse into the fate theme is powerful.
Nicely balanced Fate theme but lacking the
last drop of snarling brass.
E flat section again lacks swirling dizzying
wildness but without the cumulative power of version E. Well
played but interpretively not up there with the best, few risks
are being taken.
Recording generally too ‘toppy’. This allows
some detail to register well but again not as pleasing as the
Two climaxes again OK (the horn parts register
well) but not as cathartic as others – some compression evident
at loudest point.
The final departure again lacking mystery and atmosphere
– generally unsubtly loud here.
Ian Lace: G 23:13
There is a lighter touch to the oars; the boat proceeding
more slowly but lower woods and eerie horns create a misty
atmosphere and we have time to think of the boatman carefully
propelling the boat forward through waters that hardly move.
First climax just hints of a shape showing through mist before
the fog closes in again. Slow crescendo begins at 3:40 peaks
flatly, water movement barely perceptible and there is a subtle
hint of passing seagulls? Sweet strings then woods proclaim
pity and pathos for the soul in the bottom of the boat in
a nicely controlled episode. Now comes a monumental climax
as the boat comes into sight of the Isle. Softer phrasing
expresses concern for the soul. Personal details here are
a bit dispassionate but a deeply felt and turbulent climax
follows. One of the best pronounced ‘judgement’ scenes. Hesitant
Dies Irae awesome as if some dreadful judgement had
been passed. Unfolding passage for solo violin solo and woods
proclaim real sorrow and mournfulness. The horns are dejected
so too are the lower strings. The boat pulls away in despair.
This must be the most pessimistic reading; nevertheless it
is another interesting interpretation.
A grander, more spacious and slightly less
detailed account is provided by Disc G but the extraordinary
depth and richness of the recorded sound almost carries the
day. In this more leisurely approach (22:58), everything is
carefully weighed, beautifully balanced and executed in thrilling
high definition; this is a big, blowsy, sonic spectacular which
nonetheless encompasses the moments of sweetness and regret.
The slightly more deliberate tempo, in combination with the
subtle anticipation of the first beat in those oddly disconcerting
5/8 bars, create more tension and menace than we encounter in
the more restrained beat in disc F, and the extra two minutes
taken serve to intensify a sense of finality as the music dwindles
to its hushed close.
Disc H: Russian National Orchestra
Pletnev DG4630752 [18:30]
No pre-existing review on MusicWeb
Ian Lace: H
The antithesis of E above (Svetlanov); a much faster-paced
reading without E’s subtleties and not nearly as evocative
in its early pages. Some of the brass playing is ragged. Comparatively
characterless but it improves a little in its preliminary
climax when the island is unrevealed through the fog; the
music feels appropriately rugged and forbidding. The personal
history of the soul is emotional enough with the strings tugging
at the heart and the whole orchestra unfolding naturally into
a passionate and urgent climax. The Dies Irae episode
and the ending work quite well.
Never mind evocations and atmosphere feel the passion.
Disc H goes to the other extreme from disc E, being in digital
sound which is nonetheless muddy, distant and lacking top
frequencies - and with an absurdly rushed timing of 18:30.
All contrasts are smoothed out, yet every so often the conductor
injects fussy little accelerandi into proceedings which merely
serve to emphasise how completely he has failed to build tension
before these spasms. My final lemon is disc I: rushed, yet
nerveless, like a hyperactive patient with a failing pulse.
We scud sporadically over shallow waters. The orchestra suffers
from poor intonation, especially in the woodwinds.
Clean digital recording. Yet another flowing
tempo – in fact it seems to push on again from first few bars,
positively fast. Not unconvincing because the feel of this section
here is one of urgency.
Odd internal balances – prominent bass clarinet
yet other details failing to register. Dynamic bulges strongly
Two desk solo again rather too dominant
although here this seems to be a balance engineer’s choice.
Double-basses are in the left-hand side of the sound picture….
Something east European perhaps
After initial forward movement there is
a temporary becalming which undermines the piece’s arch form.
Dramatic sharp dynamic gradations are favoured.
Exciting though they are again this interrupts the cumulative
Great parping contra-bassoon as the rowing
resumes after the ‘isle reveal’! This section shows a palpable
increase in the performing temperature of this performance.
Dreadful mannered lift in the phrasing of
the fate theme – a really interventionist moment that breaks
Lithe and lean E flat section that moves
forward well in the spirit of Rachmaninov’s indications. One
of the most exciting versions of this section. The brass have
suddenly taken on an echo of the old Soviet edge which was not
The build to the two climaxes here again
are a throwback to an earlier time and none the worse for that.
The Dies Irae section neurotic rather than funereal which
works rather well – the timbres of the orchestra well caught.
More dynamic bulges – they feel excessive
in this final section – surely more a phrasing guide than a
big musical gesture.
Final dissolution well conveyed sinking
down into the low depths.
Disc I CSO Reiner RCA 09026 612502
rec. 1957 [20:01]
No pre-existing review on MusicWeb
My final lemon is disc I: rushed, yet nerveless, like a hyperactive
patient with a failing pulse. We scud sporadically over shallow
waters. The orchestra suffers from poor intonation, especially
in the woodwinds.
One of the older recordings here – lots
of analogue hiss.
Another version that really moves the
Fantastic string intensity at whatever
dynamic they play.
A lot of solo line spotlighting.
Very dramatic reading – more Francesca
da Rimini than Isle of the Dead though!
Clearly another great orchestra able to
sustain long slow burn climaxes superbly.
Two desk solo sounds very like a single
player – too much vibrato here, simplicity is the key.
The ‘Isle reveal’ is positively apocalyptic
with brass of awesome power and unanimity. Quite harsh 1960s(?)
sound somehow makes it all the more terrifying.
Superb fate motif in the brass backed
by a wall of unison strings who surge into the E flat ‘soul’
material. One of the very best versions of this in both execution
and interpretation. Again thrilling string intensity – clearly
superb players striving to do their considerable best. Great
waves of emotion piling one on top of the other.
The two great climaxes are not as driven
as some but fantastic ensemble and focus substitutes for that.
The Dies Irae passage lacks
the neurotic scuttling of the best interpretations of this
section but it has a baleful tread that bring the music back
to the fate motif very effectively.
The solo violin again too ardent and dominant
as the music pales away, this is the only time too when I
think the weight of string tone is mis-placed; a blanched
‘lost’ feeling should dominate.
Atmospheric opening not too evocative; the brass’s intonation
is a bit off. Less impressive watery evocation. This version plods
rather – an older recording?
Seagull impression quite good and there is a sweet fiddle solo
early on. At about 4:40 the balance is not so good muddy and conjested
sound. Climax to Isle grand and imposing The personal section
not very involving to start off with but becomes more exciting;
the climax drags a bit spaced staccato chords about 15 mins in
rather characterless and flat until 16:22 then
a certain amount of pity is evident but really rather uninvolving
and detached until a nicely expressive fiddle solo finishes with
a sense of pity and regret.
Disc J BBC Welsh
Orchestra Otaka Nimbus NI5344 [21:51]
No pre-existing review on MusicWeb
A steadier tempo and good mellow digital
The orchestra is set slightly further
back in a more realistic concert hall acoustic with no undue
Something intangible missing in the slow
build. The slower tempo has not converted into menace. Instead
it is beautifully lyrical and rather sensuous – not the black
and white of Rachmaninov’s original vision.
Transition into the piu mosso section
lacks belt-tightening ardour. Cellos don’t have the combined
projecting power of other orchestra’s sections.
‘Isle reveal’ rather anticlimactic – certainly
not the shock and awe others find here and the aftermath again
too emotionally relaxed – positively sleepy in fact! (it nearly
grinds to a complete halt before the fate motif).
E flat section lacks ardour and urgency
– low temperature playing here. The interpretation of this
section rules this version out, it misses the emotional point
all together. (lots of grunting along though!)
The two big cathartic climaxes are nothing
special – well played but lacking a sense of do or die (apt
given it’s Isle of the Dead I guess)
Actually rather a good Dies Irae
section – coldly bleak and with a dragging heavy tread – this
is a passage where a natural recorded balance pays dividends.
Close miking destroys the skilfully thin scoring but then
the final versions of the Fate motif are rather run of the
The final 5/8 rowing motif again flows
too easily, no regret or the pain of separation here. A bland
ending to a bland version.
J 21:51 Nicely reverberating opening; dark and mysterious
with subtle oar strokes and turgid waters. Quiet, distanced
brass, in the beginning, opening out to an early climax that
is held in check. ‘Nice watery sounds. Steady rhythm for the
boat; brass growing closer louder water evocations nicely nuanced
sound well balanced not too far forward. Sags a bit at around
6 mins Isle revealed at about 8 suspect intonation not too impressive.
Personal detail good and about 10:40 the climax gains momentum
and force. Judgement peremptory. Dies Irae mild could
not create much feeling for this poor soul. Ferryman’s return
solo fiddle less expressive than in I immediately above.
Disc J also evinces the faults most common in the less-than-impressive
bracket: poor tuning (again), a lack of detail in a distant
acoustic, and a slack, bland, pusillanimous engagement with
the score whereby the big moments go for nothing and the abiding
impression is one of detachment. Such an approach ignores the
fact that Rachmaninov was a hyper-sensitive Russian Romantic.
So what conclusions can be drawn. None of the above is bad
– all feature technically accomplished orchestral playing -
except for B (Ansermet)which is relatively ropey at times.
Most characterful performance without a shadow of doubt E (Svetlanov)
– I adore the palpable conviction from conductor and players
alike. Performance I is extraordinary in the intensity of extended
passages although the engineering lessens significantly the
mystery of the end of the work but this is a version where the
conductor convinces you of his vision. Of the rest I really
enjoyed C (Previn) although as an all-round best combination
of playing/interpretation/engineering I would go for F (Ashkenazy).
Of the rest A (Noseda) sounds like a run-through by a fine orchestra.
B (Ansermet) is too flawed technically and not compelling enough
interpretively to be the equals of others here. D (Petrenko)
– the best bits are superb but the rest is much too sectionalised.
G ( Batiz) – inoffensive but little to make it stand out. H
( Pletnev) sounds ‘modern’ Russian – enjoyable and well played
but with some annoying mannerisms. J (Otaka) – another also-ran,
an interpretation you would be happy to hear live because nothing
is ‘wrong’ but in the presence of some great performances it
If I could only have 1 of these on my desert island it would
be E (Svetlanov) ; if two I’d add F (Ashkenazy) and try and
hide I (Reiner) in my bag too.
This exercise has been a real challenge in terms of memory,
concentration and judgement. It has been, nevertheless very
enjoyable. Of the ten recordings, I enjoyed D ()Petrenko) and
F (Ashkenazy) the most with C (Previn) close behind. Depending
on my mood I would not discount E (Svetlanov) either. But most
readings have something to offer. But the overall winner for
me has to be: D (Petrenko)
I look forward to being surprised when I discover who recorded
But my ultimate choice is disc D (Petrenko) : a miracle of interpretation
and sonically superlative. Its timing (20:55), phrasing, control
and understanding of the dynamic relationship between the disparate
sections are all ideal. As much as I enjoyed the other three discs
in my top category, this was the only one to give me genuine goose
bumps as I listened. This is passionate, thrilling orchestral
direction and playing, from the overwhelming tragedy of the soul’s
agony to the searing poignancy of the central section, full of
yearning nostalgia for times past. Every mood is embraced from
febrile panic to desperate regret; no other version manages this
kind of range. When, in the music’s closing stages, the hammer
blows which seal the soul’s fate yield to pitiless ticking of
a universal clock, the effect is intensely dramatic and the listener
is made to appreciate anew the wonder of this extraordinary composition.
Correspondence received March 2019
One of our readers, Hans Doerrscheidt has sent the
followng very interestng set of comments:
Dear Mr Mulleger,
With “slight delay” I just found above report of the blindfold
test of various recordings of one of my favorite pieces.
I first met the “Isle of the dead” as a teenager when playing
clarinet in a community symphony orchestra in the mid 90s and
it was programmed by the ambitious conductor (I am sure he
suffered a bit and maybe regretted his decision, at least
that’s what he looked like a few times during the rehearsals).
As reference we had the Concertgebouw/Ashkenazy recording back
then, which to my ears did not leave anything to be wanted
A few years later, I heard the Reiner version, which is dear to my
heart mainly for non-musical reasons (memories of a mentor
since deceased), plus back then I Iiked the sforzato triplet
after  better the way Reiner did it - “dat dat dat DAT”
instead of Ashkenazy’s “datatatat” (which admittedly is more
in line with what the score implies).
Then last year, I finally decided to buy a used copy of the old
Rachmaninoff RCA box, containing the maestro’s own reading. I
am not sure to be honest I listened to the Isle from that box,
at that time being more interested in the piano concertos.
But then Marston put out their “Symphonic Dances” box, containing
among other things the SR memorial broadcast of the Isle with
Ormandy, and something struck me as odd, comparing it in my
aural memory with the long engraved Ashkenazy version.
Which brings me to the point of this email: The reason Sergei
Rachmaninoff’s 1929 recording runs about 2 min less than the
average recording of today is not due to a particularly fast
reading. It is because he had cut about 13% of the original
music, 62 out of 478 bars!
And apparently he confirmed these revisions again shortly before
his death for “everyone” to adhere to. See this article from
the Philadelphia Orchestra website, even showing a photograph
of the first page of the score with SR’s hand-written note. It
doesn’t even start at at the beginning anymore!
Ormandy sticks to those cuts both in the broadcast and, with one
exception, also on the 1954 studio recording.
That tells us that the one “fast” version from your batch really
is Pletnev’s, because he plays all 478 bars and still
comes out way below 20 minutes.
To my ears the cut parts are not really “waste” but belong to the
piece. (I also like the original restored 4th piano concerto
at least as much as SR’s revised shorter version.) I can
accept the cuts musically, the piece still works. And after
all, “Sergei said so!”
What I simply don’t understand, and incidentally Pletnev in that
case also adheres to SR’s own reading, is the twice slowing
down during the passage between  and , bars 5-6 and
11-12. “Rubato” as in “rubbing it in”?
Anyway. I guess from your article I should give Petrenko a good
Thanks for reading.