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Comparative reviews of 10 unidentified performances of Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead by three MusicWeb reviewers.

An Experiment.

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 4706752 [21:10]
G RPO Batiz Naxos 8.550583 [23:13]
H Russian National Orchestra Pletnev DG4630752 [18:30]
I CSO Reiner RCA 09026 612502 [20:01]
J BBC Welsh Otaka Nimbus NI5344 [21:51]

Len Mullenger

Jump links
The Reviews
Conclusions

Introductions

Ian Lace:
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 the Dead
 
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.

Nick Barnard:

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 website. 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.

Ralph Moore

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.


The Reviews

Disk A The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra Noseda Chandos CHAN 10475 rec 2008 [20:21]

pre-existing review by Bob Briggs

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.

Nick Barnard:

  • Modern digital recording – extreme dynamic range and inner detail – almost synthetically detailed. Some instrumental details register here as on none of the other recordings.
  • Flowing speed but little menace or sense of foreboding
  • The ‘reveal’ of the Isle underplayed – disappointing
  • 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 drive.
  • 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 Barnett

Nick Barnard:

  • 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 nasal trumpet)
  • Basic tempo fast and restless. Too fast for my taste but tempo well sustained and built on into the ‘Isle reveal’
  • The fate theme is menacing but instrumental balance poor – too much upper line. This passage needs sepulchral bass.
  • 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

     

    Ian Lace:
    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.

    Ralph Moore:
    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 [21:11]
    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 reading

    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.

    Nick Barnard:

  • 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 climax.
  • 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 all round.

    Disc D: Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Petrenko Avie AV2188 rec 2008/09 [21:10]

    pre-existing review John Quinn/Rob Barnett

    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 composition.

    Nick Barnard:
  • 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 believable soundscape.
  • 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 arch.
  • 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 becalmed.
  • 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 climaxes.
  • 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 Quinn

    Nick Barnard:

  • 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.

    Nick Barnard:
  • 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 forward movement.
  • Superb brass, really well integrated as a group.
  • 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 again impressive.
  • 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 this.
  • 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 is reduced.

    Ian Lace
    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

    Nick Barnard:

  • 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 best
  • 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.

    Ralph Moore:
    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.

    Ralph Moore:
    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.

     

    Nick Barnard:
  • 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 observed.
  • 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 impact.
  • 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 the phrase.
  • 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 apparent before.
  • 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

    Ralph Moore:
    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.

    Nick Barnard:
    • One of the older recordings here – lots of analogue hiss.
    • Another version that really moves the tempo along.
    • 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.
    Ian Lace:
    I 20:01
    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 Dies Irae 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

    Nick Barnard:

    • A steadier tempo and good mellow digital sound.
    • The orchestra is set slightly further back in a more realistic concert hall acoustic with no undue spotlighting.
    • 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 mill
    • 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.

    Ian Lace
    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.

     

    Ralph Moore

    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.

     

    Conclusions

    Nick Barnard
    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 feels two-dimensional.
     
    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.

    Ian Lace
    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 what.

    Ralph Moore
    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.
     
     


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