Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No.1 [46:08]
The Isle of the Dead - Symphonic Poem, Op. 29 [21:05]
Symphony No.2 [57:16]
The Rock - Fantasy for Orchestra, Op. 7 [14:25]
Symphony No.3 [40:30]
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 [33:40]
The Bells, Op. 35 [35:10]
Spring, Op. 20 [15:57]
Three Russian Songs, Op. 41 [12:05]
Alexandrina Pendachanska (soprano), Kaludi Kaludov (tenor), Sergei Leiferkus (tenor)
Choral Arts Society of Philadelphia
Philadelphia Orchestra/Charles Dutoit
rec. Memorial Hall, Philadelphia, November 1990 (CD3); November 1991 (CD1); January 1992 (CD4); February 1993 (CD2). DDD
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802021 [4 CDs: 67:13 + 73:41 + 74:29 + 63:24]

Before he went to Montreal Dutoit had recorded for Erato. His Roussel symphonies are still a cornerstone of the Warner Apex catalogue. Dutoit’s tenure (1977-2002) with Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) and his friendship with Decca producer Ray Minshull – also the producer of CD 3 here – took the Montreal orchestra to an international eminence it had never previously won. When Dutoit left Montreal the orchestra’s grip on the world’s attention sank to a level secured by those recordings. As they gradually slipped from the catalogue so the orchestra’s profile faded. During those halcyon days Decca made well-loved versions of the orchestral Ravel, Debussy and Berlioz. No surprise – Dutoit is French-speaking Swiss-born and Montreal is in Quebec, the heartland of Gallophile nationalism within Canada. Apart from the usual prominent territory he seems never to have looked at the likes of Schmitt, Lazzari, Witkowski, Ropartz, Aubert, Lesur or Maurice – at least not on record. Dutoit also made Montreal forays into Prokofiev, Bartók, de Falla, Stravinsky and a host of early twentieth century others; not that he restricted himself to this area: Tchaikovsky for example.

He guested at Philadelphia in 1980 and then from 1990 to 1999 became its music director. He has been appointed chief conductor and artistic adviser to the orchestra from 2008 to 2012. Given the long Rachmaninov tradition in Philadelphia stretching back to Stokowski and Ormandy days it was no surprise that Dutoit and the orchestra would look in that direction. The auguries were good and the technology certainly delivers in the currency of refinement. You can sample the sophisticated and vibrant sound in the first five minutes of The Bells. On the other hand what should be bristling excitement seems blunted. It’s more Autumn reflective than Spring rapture - though I did really like the ardent tenor of Kaludi Kaludov. The same can be said of the smooth accounts of Spring and Three Russian Songs. This last disc was reissued by Decca Eloquence in 2005 and was well liked at the time by John Phillips. The Symphony No. 3 is also rather middle of the road, highly competent but not gripping; same goes for The Isle of the Dead although the little violin ‘commas’ at 3:55 are superbly etched in. Things improve by a degree or two for the Symphonic Dances but nothing to compare with the classic Kondrashin or to Temirkanov on Signum or Neeme Järvi on Chandos or Brilliant. In fairness things do hot up in the final measures of the third dance but it’s too little too late. Unforgivably Dutoit does not insist on the final tam-tam smash being allowed to vibrate to silence. The Second Symphony is a cut above in this company. It all seems very well judged, sumptuous and with plenty of heady adrenaline. It can reliably be counted in the variegatedly excellent company of Svetlanov, Rozhdestvensky, Cura (do not forget him on any account), Kogan (dazzlingly bright) and Sanderling. The Rock is an early work and very Rimskian. It suits Dutoit’s temperament and is done lucidly and with considerable poetry. The First Symphony is also well put across. I really warmed to the second movement for the first time.

Exemplary design decisions by Newton Classics. The supportive notes are by David Gutman.

Not my set of choice but has highly refined sound with a generally cool emotional approach, an especially engaging Second Symphony and a good First. Will suit listeners who want less of the lush romantic side of Rachmaninov and prefer to avoid extremes of temperature.

Rob Barnett

Refined recordings and playing but where is the abandon? An excellent Second Symphony, though.