What a far cry this recording of the Rachmaninov Second Symphony is from the old Detroit Symphony recording by Paul Paray, as I remember it. That was lean to the point of being bare and, while exciting enough, it lacked any kind of romantic ardor. The exact opposite was the recording I grew up with and still have on LP, Eugene Ormandy’s with the Philadelphia Orchestra. That was very lush and string-heavy with plenty of portamento that left one wallowing in sheer sound. One wasn’t aware of any of the counter-melodies by the winds, only the swooping strings! On CD my favorite was Andrew Litton’s with the Royal Philharmonic on Virgin that seemed a better balance of the score’s elements. I also appreciated both of André Previn’s accounts, the EMI for his dynamic interpretation, and the Telarc for its splendid sound. I have never cared much for Ashkenazy’s Concertgebouw recording on Decca, which I found rather coarse sounding, although I have liked his other Rachmaninov discs a great deal. Then, like William Hedley, in his review of the present disc, I received as a BBC Music Magazine cover disc the BBC Philharmonic recording with Edward Downes. I discarded my Litton recording and have kept the Downes ever since. However, unlike Mr. Hedley, I will now replace that recording with this new one — a performance that has everything for me except for the first movement repeat. I do not at all mind the missing repeat, as the first movement is long enough without it and it does not really add anything except length.
What’s so special about this performance is the perfect balance between the lush melodies in the strings and the delectable wind counter melodies and solos. Slatkin’s tempos seem to me to be just about perfect, too, although one could argue that he takes the second movement a bit on the fast side. Nonetheless, it works well. The performance never stagnates and the symphony is the better for it. One could not ask for warmer strings or more dynamism in the rhythms. However, it is the sheer vitality of this account that causes me to prefer it to the Downes. Credit for this is due not just to the conductor, but especially to the world-class playing of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. I have heard them over the years and they have never sounded as good as they do on this CD. Based on this, the DSO is up there with the best that America has to offer. One not-so-small thing I should also point out is that Slatkin does not allow a spurious timpani thwack at the end of the first movement (neither did Downes) and sticks to the score as written. Furthermore, Naxos has captured this performance in sound that is both rich and clear, and very natural. The applause at the end of this live account is fully justified. I wanted to cheer along with them. It was a good idea for the insert to list the orchestra’s personnel, as they really deserve the credit. Keith Anderson’s notes preceding the listing are also exemplary.
As a bonus, the CD begins with the well-loved Vocalise
in a sensitive performance that matches that of the symphony. Litton also included that on his recording. Pace
Mr. Hedley, this new recording of Rachmaninov’s Second is now my benchmark.
See also review
by William Hedley