Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 3 in A minor (1935-36) [37:10]
Isle of the Dead (1909) [18:09]
Philadelphia Orchestra/Sergey Rachmaninov
rec. Academy of Music, Philadelphia: 11 December 1939 (Sym); 20 April 1929 (Isle of the Dead, Vocalise).
NAXOS 8.111357 [59:17]
These three performances, the only examples of Rachmaninov conducting his own music, make obvious disc-mates. It’s by no means the first time they’ve been programmed in this way; one need only look at the multi-volume Rachmaninov ‘Complete Recordings’ from RCA [Red Seal 82876-67892-2] to note that disc three is set aside for these performances. And, further back, for instance, Pearl issued its transfers [GEMM CD 9414], and now Naxos has undertaken its own via the work of Mark Obert-Thorn.
The Third Symphony receives a magnificent reading, courtesy of the Philadelphia Orchestra in full flow. It responds to the composer’s deft and inventively romantic themes with glorious aplomb, stinting nothing in its tonal opulence in pursuance of the composer-conductor’s aims. Six of the eight sides were first takes. The opening side required the use of a second take - maybe it was a cold start - but once into the work the session seems to have progressed smoothly. That, if I’m reading things correctly, seems not to have been the case back in April 1929 when he recorded Isle of the Dead. All the selected takes were the fourth and fifth, so maybe there were co-ordination and ensemble problems - or maybe there’s another explanation. In any case the results were as convincing as the Third Symphony recording of a decade later. As so often, Rachmaninov directs tautly but with malleable and flexible control. The music surges with power and suggestive sonorities, and the strings’ luscious portamenti add their own vibrant gloss on the aural perspective. The ‘filler’, the final side, of this three 78 disc album, was Vocalise in the composer’s orchestrally garbed version - suitably rich, suitably lovely.
If you want these performances, this disc proves a canny and inexpensive way to acquire them, given that you may not want the 10 CD RCA box, and that the Pearl’s transfer is inferior to this latest release, should you be able to find it. Indeed Naxos preserves more surface noise than RCA, but less than Pearl, retaining full frequencies and sacrificing no loss of upper frequencies. Fortunately for those who decide to take a chance on the RCA box, its restorers have not gone crazy on over-processing, and things sound good.
If you want these performances, this disc proves a canny and inexpensive way to acquire them.
see also review by Ian Lace