Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor (1906-7)
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Tadaaki Otaka
rec. July 2010, Melbourne Town Hall. DDD
MSO LIVE ABC CLASSICS 476 4842 [66.13]
The bar has already been set very high for new recordings of this most swooningly indulgent of Romantic symphonies. I’m afraid that from listening to the first few bars of this live performance from Melbourne, I had the feeling that this would be an also-ran.
The opening Largo evinced little of the brooding menace of the Rozhdestvensky recording with the LSO (Regis), the soulful yearning of Handley and the RPO or the rapture of either of Ormandy’s recordings with the Philadelphians; indeed, it borders on the prosaic. I hope that I am not prey to the kind of snobbery which would condemn the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to provincial status, nor do I automatically assume that Tadaaki Otaka is a second-rank conductor (a very fine Rachmaninov symphony cycle for Nimbus. Ed.) – I have recently heard too many indisputably world-class recordings from supposedly minor-league outfits to fall into that trap – but this is a performance which does little to set the pulse racing and in general plays the notes in restrained and accurate style. Again and again, as I made detailed comparisons with those four favourite recordings, I found Otaka’s phrasing to be dull and wooden. The orchestra themselves seemed to exude no real sense of pleasure or inspiration as they dutifully followed their leader.
I also found the live sound to be oddly dampened and lifeless, without presence. The strings have very little radiance, which militates against generating the aureate glow demanded by Rachmaninov in his upward-soaring figures. Otaka in any case seems to have nothing much to say about the music nor to feel very much in response to the composer’s emotional outpouring; the ensuing Allegro sounds as if he is afraid to embrace the sensuousness of the music, whereas Ormandy in 1973 leans into the phrasing like a drowning man.
The Allegro molto lacks Rozhdestvensky’s bite and I miss Ormandy’s judicious application of portamento in the big tune. Similarly, the superb sound from the RPO’s Tring label is immensely helpful in allowing Handley to bring out instrumental colours. The Adagio again sounds as if Otaka is scandalised by or indifferent to its overt emotionalism; the thin clarinet tone of the Melbourne soloist compares unfavourably with the golden tone of its Philadelphia counterpart or the characterful graininess of the RPO clarinettist and we never approach the swing and lilt of Ormandy’s interpretation. To cap what is clearly a disappointing account, the Allegro vivace isn’t; it’s too slack and slow to deliver thrills.
Oh dear; I have committed a critical assassination. I’m just a listener, not a gifted musician like those who play for us and it gives me no pleasure to voice my honest opinion, but I can find no reason on earth to prefer this recording to the extraordinarily vivid and ecstatic interpretation given to us by Ormandy in his second recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra (without cuts, unlike his first) and this remains my top recommendation, good as Handley and Rozhdestvensky are.