Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Caprice bohémien, Op. 12 (1892-4) [16:05]
Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 [5:44]
Symphony No 3 in A minor, Op. 44 (1935-6) [40:40]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 23 September 2009, 7-8 July 2010, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 50999 6 79019 2 [62:51]
Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO have already made several excellent Rachmaninov recordings. These include the works for piano and orchestra with Simon Trpc(eski (review, review) and an outstanding collection of orchestral pieces with the Symphonic Dances (review). Those discs were all released by Avie but now for what, perhaps, may be the first in a cycle of the symphonies, the issuing label is EMI.
Not long ago I reviewed another recording of the Rachmaninov Third Symphony and, coincidentally, that also featured an ensemble from the North West of England. In that case the recording venue was Manchester, home of the BBC Philharmonic. That BBC Philharmonic reading, led by Gianandrea Noseda, was very impressive; would the Liverpool version make an equally favourable impression?
As I wrote in my review of the Noseda performance, I’ve found the Third Symphony less easy to assimilate than its two predecessors because I find its structure more difficult to follow. By this stage in his composing career Rachmaninov’s style had become more concise and there’s rather less of the overt, expansive lyricism that pervaded his earlier masterpieces. Though there’s still a strong lyric vein in the Third its themes tend to be shorter in span and the inter-relationship between episodes is perhaps less clearly signposted than was the case in the past. I don’t say this critically but merely to point out a different stylistic approach. However, the music can seem episodic. I found that Noseda was successful in leading the listener – or at least this listener - convincingly through Rachmaninov’s argument. The same is pretty much true of Petrenko.
I believe it helps that by the time they made these respective recordings both Noseda and Petrenko had established very settled relationships with their orchestras. Each had made a number of previous Rachmaninov recordings with them. On the evidence of the recordings I’ve heard to date Petrenko has made the RLPO into a very good Rachmaninov orchestra. The sound and style is leaner than the classic Philadelphia sound which Rachmaninov surely had in his mind when he wrote this work – he made a celebrated recording of it with that orchestra in 1939 (review). However, the Liverpool orchestra is more disciplined that some authentically Russian orchestras that one has heard in the past, the magnificent Leningrad Philharmonic an obvious exception. The Liverpool approach to Rachmaninov – and, indeed, to other music – is characterised by agile and intelligent woodwind playing, a brass section that plays with bite and presence, strings that have polish and satisfying weight. and a crisp percussion section. All that’s in evidence here.
Rachmaninov’s orchestration is particularly imaginative in this score and Petrenko is alive to this. Note, for example, the very short, eerie passage in the first movement (11:01–11:18) involving muted horns and soft woodwind chords. Though this symphony is not as expansive as his previous two symphonies the essential Rachmaninov is still very much there. Petrenko’s reading of the opening movement conveys well the lyricism and the vein of Russian melancholy that permeates the writing.
At the start of the second movement there’s a violin solo that on this occasion is most delicately delivered by the RLPO’s leader. This sets the tone for some fine solo work by other principals, notably the flute and clarinet, as the movement progresses. The scherzo episode is played with panache and precision. The orchestra has the requisite rhythmic vitality to put this section over convincingly. There’s good drive in the finale but the rich lyrical sections (for example 1:35-3:02 and again 8:27-10:31) are given full value; remember, this music was written for Stokowski and his Philadelphians. It seems to me that Petrenko holds the somewhat disparate structure of this movement together well and, appropriately, he brings the symphony home in dashing style.
The early Caprice bohémien is also common to both the Petrenko and Noseda discs. It’s a somewhat gawky piece and Petrenko’s overall approach is ardent, which is surely the right course to adopt, given the music’s elements of weakness. His performance is tauter than Noseda’s, taking 16:05 compared with 17:55. I prefer the Petrenko approach overall. However, heard consecutively the Chandos sound is fuller and more exciting than the EMI sonics for Petrenko. This new disc is completed by a performance of Vocalise. It’s nicely played but I wonder if Petrenko perhaps underplays the poignancy.
The engineering team of David Pigott (balance engineer) and producers John Fraser and, in Vocalise, Andrew Cornall, is the same that was responsible for Petrenko’s superb Avie recording of the Symphonic Dances. The sound on this new EMI disc is good and I don’t think purchasers will be disappointed though I don’t think it matches the impact and panache of the results that were achieved in the same venue on that Avie release.
If Petrenko is making a Rachmaninov symphony cycle for EMI then it’s got off to a good start. I hope that any such cycle will not overlook The Bells.
John Quinn
More Rachmaninov from Petrenko in Liverpool.