Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op 27 [61:49]
Melbourne Symphony/Tadaaki Otaka
rec. 16-17 July 2010, Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, Australia
ABC CLASSICS 476 4842 [61:49]

I didn’t look forward to reviewing this. There are a hundred-plus recordings of this symphony, and although a newcomer can still make a mark, I didn’t expect a live reading by the Melbourne Symphony to do so. My mistake.
This is a rich, plummy, romantic reading in which conductor Tadaaki Otaka - who recorded all three symphonies for Nimbus - has nearly all the sense of Rachmaninov’s drama and sweep. The Melbourne Symphony play their hearts out, and whatever qualms one could have are minimal. The first movement is most skilfully shaped, and at just under 20 minutes (no repeat) very well paced, with an ominous introduction, lush themes and strong woodwinds. The adagio builds to a climax as lovely as any. The finale worried me more than the rest because of the track time (15:48! Compare to Previn/LSO’s 14:16), but it turned out to include a minute of applause. The final coda, I have to say, is a total winner: awe-inspiringly powerful, and a totally rousing finish; the clapping is deserved. The Melbourne Symphony is clearly a very fine orchestra: the brass has a burnished, regal sound which does them well in the finale, the violas and cellos acquit themselves very well in the adagio, and the wind soloists handle their roles well, with an especially piquant oboe.
Regrets? There are a few: the first movement’s climaxes don’t have the grand orchestral riches of recordings with the LSO (Previn or Rozhdestvensky) or Philadelphia Orchestra (Ormandy), the fugal section in the scherzo could have used a little more frenzy, especially in its conclusion and the humdrum return to the main theme, and the adagio does drag a little bit near the end, although the final fade-out is played by the strings with exquisite softness. The live acoustic treats everyone well but the first violins sometimes seem a little detached, like they’re way off to the left; otherwise there’s a dryish but full sound and no audience noise worth noting until the final applause. Occasionally there are pages turning very quietly or a cough, but that’s it. The only technical lapse I heard anywhere was in the trumpet line at 8:53 in the scherzo, a good record for such a long, complex piece.
My three favorite Rach 2s are still Rozhdestvensky/LSO, Previn/LSO, and Ormandy (the uncut reading from the 1970s; sadly not reviewed here although the first very cut version is). This can’t touch those for electric fervour, maybe, but it competes very well with the recent readings by Slatkin/Detroit and Lan Shui/Singapore. Slatkin’s live album benefits from livelier paces everywhere and weightier brass (plus a Vocalise bonus). There’s energy and passion here, in a reading at nearly the highest level which must have made a marvellous concert. It still sounds excellent at home, too. In the words of Monty Python’s Bruces: Australia, Australia, Australia, Australia, we love you, amen!

Brian Reinhart 

see also review by Ralph Moore

Masterwork Index: Rachmaninov's 2nd Symphony

A reading at nearly the highest level which must have made a marvellous concert. Definitely far more than I expected.