Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-7) [59:25]
Orchestra of the Kirov Opera, St. Petersburg/Valery Gergiev
rec. January 1999, Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg. DDD
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802082 [59:25]
This is the first of two recordings of the symphony that Valery Gergiev has made. It was taped by Philips, I believe, and presumably under studio conditions and has now been licensed to Newton Classics. Gergiev’s much more recent recording is on the LSO Live label (LSO0677) and was taken from live performances in September 2008. I have not heard that version.
Gergiev is persuasive in the long, brooding first movement, playing the text in full, including the exposition repeat which many conductors eschew - even, I believe, Previn in his catalogue-leading EMI version from 1973, though otherwise Previn restored all the traditional cuts. The inclusion of this repeat will go a long way towards explaining why in his performance the first movement lasts 22:39. This is longer than any other version I know, but though Gergiev is suitably expansive he’s not excessively slow and when Rachmaninov requires the music to move on with more urgency Gergiev delivers. He’s helped by having a fine orchestra at his disposal. The strings have weight and body without undue heaviness and can sing out Rachmaninov’s long lines while the cellos and basses provide a firm foundation to the string choir. The woodwind and brass are up to the same standard. Incidentally, though a Russian orchestra is involved you won’t find that traditional and uniquely Russian timbre much in evidence in the wind and brass departments - though there’s some mild evidence of vibrato in the horn department. Gergiev’s band is pretty “international” in its sound, reflecting the disappearance over the last few decades of those unique sounds produced by, say, French or East European orchestras. Some will regret that, though it must be acknowledged that the sound of an ‘authentic’ Russian brass section could be a distinctly acquired taste.
There’s a good deal of punch and dash in Gergiev’s reading of the second movement and the fugal episode (track 2, from 3:17) finds the Kirov on their toes and playing with bite and precision. As in the first movement, the pages in which Rachmaninov indulges himself - and us - in those trademark sweeping, nostalgic melodies find Gergiev ready to encourage his orchestra to play with passion but - and this is crucial - he’s never self-indulgent; the music always has purpose and forward momentum.
That gorgeous, extended melody at the start of the Adagio must be on the Desert Island shortlist for most clarinettists. The Kirov player steps up to the plate and pours out the melody beautifully though, for my money, Jack Brymer (for Previn) outdoes him for sensitivity and seductive nostalgia. However, the difference is not great and Gergiev leads a reading of this glorious example of Rachmaninov’s romantic art that is both ardent and sensitive. The climaxes are pretty powerful but not overblown. It’s interesting to note that although Gergiev by no means rushes or short changes the emotional side of this movement he takes some 2½ minutes less than Previn. I love Previn’s way with that movement - and, indeed, with the whole symphony - but Gergiev is just as convincing.
The finale surges, full of confidence and ardour. Yet even in a movement which has allegro vivace as its main marking Rachmaninov can’t resist pausing along the way several times to delight us with sweeping, romantic episodes. Gergiev is not found wanting on these occasions. I do regret slightly that just before the end he is a bit over-indulgent in pulling back the brass-dominated peroration (track 4, 12:52 - 13:22) However, he gathers himself and with a final burst of energy Gergiev sweeps this superb symphony to a triumphant close. In the bad old days Rachmaninov’s Second used to be thought too long and self-indulgent; not in Gergiev’s hands it isn’t!
It’s surprising that Philips don’t see this fine recording as part of their future catalogue plans. All credit to them, however, for licensing it to Newton Classics for reissue for it is far too good to gather dust in the vaults. Kudos also to Newton for having the discrimination to include this version in their lists. I’m delighted that I now have it in my collection. The sound is good, though not outstanding, and there’s a useful note by David Nice.
Currently we detail 23 recordings of this symphony in our Masterworks listing. This one is a most welcome addition and, indeed, must rank highly in the pecking order.
John Quinn
A welcome reissue of Gergiev’s first traversal of Rachmaninov’s Second.