Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 (1895) [45:46]
Prince Rostislav (1891) [16:48]
CD 2
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-7) [67:21]
CD 3
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 (1935-6) [44:54]
Symphonic Movement in D minor (Youth Symphony) (1891) [14:51]
Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14 (1912) [7:20]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Owain Arwel Hughes
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, September 2001
BIS-CD-1665/66 [3 CDs: 63:27 + 67:59 + 68:25]

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Apparently, no-one bothered telling Owain Arwel Hughes that Rachmaninov wrote big, lush romantic scores, marked by the sort of broad, arching melodies, juicy harmonies and rich textures that would later be tagged as "movie music". Or, if he was told, he didn't pay attention.

The first thing you're likely to notice is that the music isn't slathered in aural "heavy syrup", as it can be. While the sonority is always grounded in a firm bass, the conductor keeps the texture and tone consistently light, eschewing the melodramatic surges and swells considered obligatory in some quarters. The music's cantabile element is not neglected: the great melodies sing out, but lyrically rather than grandly; the vibrant string sound is clear and tapered. Orchestrally, this is roughly equivalent to painting in fine rather than broad strokes - or, as in some cruder performances, perhaps a trowel.

Such refinement produces unusually transparent sonorities, in which the varicolored winds, and interior voices in general, can register without overplaying. In the first movement of the E minor symphony, little ostinatos and accompaniment figures, usually buried in a wash of rich sound, emerge sufficiently to keep the textures active, without detracting from the main musical line. In the codettas of the exposition - repeated, by the way, which makes for a long movement - and recapitulation, the clear balance is wonderful: the melodic cellos sing out smoothly, without having to fight through the welter of supporting parts above and below. In the A minor symphony, lightly scored passages - in the first-movement recapitulation, for example, and at 4:58 and 8:38 in the finale - are played gently, conjuring a chamber-music intimacy. The resulting expressive palette favors wistfulness over nostalgia, the ache of yearning over the rush of passion, and underlines the brooding aspects of the A minor.

In keeping with his attention to smaller-scaled effects, Hughes opts for a rhythmic impulse more akin to an easy flow than to a hard push. It mostly works - one discovers that greater drive isn't always necessary - but matters occasionally threaten to come to a halt here and there, particularly in the E minor. In the first movement, the lyrical third theme brings a refreshing stillness; but in the recapitulation, nearing the end of a long movement, the effect approaches stasis. The great Adagio, too, is perhaps unduly languid in manner, though there's no denying the limpid beauty of the playing, and the phrases do lead the ear onward.

If I've not been referencing the D minor symphony, it's because it thrives less well than its companions under this treatment. To be sure, it offers its share of expressive, considered details: note the seamless transition from the introduction into the clarinet's anxious first subject. But, had the strings dug into those introductory phrases with more tonal weight, there would have been a more marked musical contrast as well. The comparative lack of momentum in the outer movements doesn't establish the requisite structural guideposts, and they both ramble, despite the sensitive playing of the first movement's little woodwind phrases. The inner movements come off better - the scherzo chugs along pleasantly, if not distinctively, and the Larghetto offers some lovely moments.

The fillers offer the young composer before he's found his "cosmopolitan" voice, working in a Russian-nationalist idiom, exemplified by the tone poem Prince Rostislav. Arwel Hughes, while still keeping the textures lightweight, captures the score's basic dark, brooding quality, leavened by delicate, sparkling woodwind solos that recall the Glazunov ballets.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the single-movement Youth Symphony is Rachmaninov's hommage to Tchaikovsky. This student piece is a virtual rip-off of that composer's Fourth Symphony: blatantly so in the brassy rhythmic gestures of the climaxes, more suggestively in the choice of a triple meter and the use of rising sequences to build tension. Here the conductor infuses the phrasing with thrust and purpose, and this may just be the best performance in the set.

The Vocalise is lovely, as it usually is, and even more gossamer than the López-Cobos (Telarc). Some of the tenutos are uncertainly timed, and the final statement brings one of the set's rare balance lapses, with the sensitive clarinet a bit too reticent against the various string lines.

The engineering is predictably fine, coming up clearly and smoothly, but at first I was disappointed: I'd expected BIS, with its audiophile reputation, to make "bigger"-sounding, more present Rachmaninov recordings. In fact, it's the playing itself, rather than the reproduction, that needed to be "bigger".

Stephen Francis Vasta

The texture and tone are consistently light and melodramatic surges and swells are eschewed.