Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Three Symphonies
CD 1 [74:05]
Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 [49:38]
Études-tableaux for orchestra (orchestrated by O. Respighi, only 4 of the 5: The Sea and the Seagulls, Op. 39/2 [8:16]; Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, Op. 39/6 [3:19]; Funeral March, Op. 39/7 [8:45]; March, Op. 39/9 [4:08])
CD 2 [65:31]
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27[59:40]
Vocalise, transcription for orchestra, Op. 34/14 [5:51]
CD 3 [63:55]
The Isle of the Dead Op. 29 [21:48]
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44[42:07]
BBC NOW / Otaka
rec. Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, Wales. 5-6 September 1992, 8-9 September 1991.
NIMBUS NI1786 [3 CDs: 74:05 + 65:31 + 63:55]

How one thing leads to another. If you like this you might like that. So it has come about that two boxes from Nimbus have come to attention and reappraisal. It all started with the Lill/Otaka Nimbus set of the Rachmaninov piano concertos which included some other things. I was very impressed pretty much all-round and so was John Quinn. Otaka's BBC Welsh Orchestra sounded stunning and idiomatically Russian in the grandest of traditions. Could his approach to the symphonies be of similar standing and were these works as wondrously recorded by the Nimbus team? Nimbus were good enough to provide a review copy.
The First Symphony has a healthy Slavonic weight shot through with characteristic tragic blackness. The solo winds are good and reminiscent of Glazunov – Otaka recorded a complete Glazunov symphony cycle for Bis. The atmosphere of the Brangwyn Hall is fully captured with every metallic rattle and string-lofted swoon rendered in full. The gong-stroke at the end of movement I resonates into silence. Otaka keeps a hold on propulsion with fine backward and forward tempo changes. There’s a whiplash finale to cap things off – a glorious ruckus.
It’s a shame that we get only four of the five Respighi-orchestrated Etudes-Tableaux which I first heard in a recording conducted by the otherwise unknown Yuri Krasnopolsky with the New Philharmonia. These range in mood across lingering languor to contemplative lulling and lapping to abrasive vigour and tragedy (II and IV) all with a Hollywood gleam. I wonder what Bax or Respighi would have made of the Medtner ballades had he been moved to orchestrate them?
The Second Symphony has a shattering impact. This is a great recording that swells to fill the Brangwyn Hall. There’s a real Russian swell to the sound in II. The feminine solo woodwind are accentuated against the masculine swathes of string sound which are almost suffocating in their pesante density. At 8.15 the solo violin vibrant and fibrous. Such intimate moments contrast with the jubilant roar and swoon of the finale. Rozhdestvensky and the LSO on Regis are magnificent as in their different ways are Cura (Avie), Sanderling (Warner), Svetlanov (Melodiya) and the classic starry Previn with the LSO (EMI). Otaka is in the same league. There's a touchingly sensitive Vocalise to finish CD 2: quietude personified and lovingly paced.
I rather regret the absence of a Symphonic Dances from Otaka however his musing Isle of the Dead passes in one epic sustained groan and sigh. The Third Symphony is most transparently recorded which helps in a work that has more than a few moments of delicacy. It is more thoughtful and less impulsive than the other two: the years that bring the philosophic mind? In this sense it differs from the late-ish Fourth Piano Concerto. Svetlanov’s 1962 Melodiya recording with the USSRSO was truly exciting and pips this to the post. That said, this has much going for it in its pensive yet not unexciting way. In III at 10.51 Otaka holds back on the effervescence although at 12:12 he blitzes his way through the final gallop.
There are typically good English only liner-notes from composer John Pickard just as there were for the piano concertos box.
That the project had funding from Hitachi Maxell is a reminder of how recorded media have moved on from the days of the audio cassette.
Just one final curio point: These three discs and the three comprising the Piano Concertos were issued by Nimbus in 1999 in a single large box as NI 1761 [nla].
A very strong contender indeed and something of a Cinderella in the crowded annals of Rachmaninov symphony cycles.
Rob Barnett
Stunning and idiomatically Russian in the grandest of traditions. A rather underestimated presence in the catalogue.