Rachmaninov’s three symphonies have been a constant source of enjoyment to me. Over the years I have lived happily with the recordings from Ormandy/Philadelphia (Sony), Maazel/Berlin (DG), Ashkenazy/Concertgebouw, (Decca) and Previn/LSO (EMI).
With these three releases on EMI Classics (now Warner Classics) Vasily Petrenko has completed his Rachmaninov cycle with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO). All the works presented were recorded at various dates between 2009 and 2012 the liner-notes indicating that only Symphony No. 1
was recorded live. Petrenko started his survey with wonderful accounts of the Symphonic Dances
; The Isle of the Dead
and The Rock
recorded at the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool in 2008-09 on Avie (see review
). With Avie Petrenko and the RLPO with soloist Simon Trpčeski recorded Rachmaninov’s set of four Piano Concertos
and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
(see reviews of 1 & 4
and 2 & 3
In 1895 the première of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony
at Saint Petersburg was a fiasco owing to an unprepared orchestra and the conducting of Glazunov who was thought to be the worse for drink. Mortified by its terrible critical reception the twenty-three year old composer withdrew the symphony. This distressing experience together with other personal issues is deemed responsible for the nervous breakdown that Rachmaninov battled with for a number of years. Following an intensive course of psychotherapy and hypnosis from Russian physician Dr. Nikolai Dahl the composer began to recover from his torment and recapture his desire to compose. He left Russia and went into exile leaving behind the score of his First Symphony
. After the composer’s death in 1943 the symphony’s orchestral parts were found, at the then Leningrad Conservatory, and a full score was reconstructed allowing a performance to be given in 1945 in Moscow. Many music books, when discussing the three symphonies disregard the First Symphony
but it is a work that deserves to be far better known. Composer and broadcaster Robert Simpson greatly admired it, considering it “probably the finest Russian symphony since Tchaikovsky’s.” I also greatly admire the work and certainly play it on disc more than his other two mature symphonies.
Petrenko attended the Saint Petersburg Conservatory - the same establishment that Rachmaninov had entered as a ten year old in 1883. It is no surprise that one feels his strong personal connection to the music. Rachmaninov might have said of the work in 1917 that it was “weak, childish, strained and bombastic” but it feels none of those things in the assured hands of Petrenko. It comes across as fresh, bold and exciting. From a sense of child-like vulnerability to the gallant robustness of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov
Petrenko brings out Rachmaninov’s contrasting moods right from the opening. A fresh outdoor feel pervades the writing of the Scherzo,
constantly in motion and unable to settle. Swirling strings of an often exalted intensity in the Larghetto
coalesce with mysterious woodwind figures - especially the plaintive melodies on the clarinet and oboe. Petrenko brings immense power to the Finale
: Allegro con fuoco
which erupts into a derisive march. Maintaining highly charged playing throughout the conclusion is as intensely passionate as one can imagine.
In 1891 the eighteen year old Rachmaninov was still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. It was then that he composed his powerful and dramatic symphonic poem Prince Rostislav
. Based on a poem by Alexei Tolstoy it wasn’t played in the composer’s lifetime and was premièred in 1943 in Moscow by conductor Nikolai Anosoff. Petrenko imparts abundant colour in a dramatic and committed performance that just overflows with emotional torment. This is a highly assured work by the teenage Rachmaninov - underrated and terrifically exciting in a bold performance that makes you want to hear it again.
Rachmaninov moved with his family to Dresden in 1906 and there completed his Symphony No. 2 in E minor
. In 1909 wrote the symphonic poem Isle of the Dead
. It was Rachmaninov himself that conducted the symphony at its St. Petersburg première
in 1908. At one time especially in the 1940s and 1950s this lengthy Symphony was often subject to cuts; here Petrenko’s interpretation lasts sixty minutes. The spacious opening movement commences with a sense of brooding mystery followed by a number of flowing and achingly beautiful melodies. Petrenko boldly increases the power, intensity and suspense. The second movement is a vigorous Scherzo
to which a galloping quality is brought. Midway through no concessions are made when presenting the glorious melting theme that is one of the major highlights in all Rachmaninov’s music. Heavily rhapsodic and idyllic the melody that opens the Adagio
just washes over the listener. I felt a slight cumbersome quality to the otherwise effective playing of the important clarinet melody at 0:31-2:28. With this conductor’s natural assurance and affinity for the writing everything feels unaffectedly cohesive. The jubilant Finale
is given a boisterous and vigorous reading with no lack of concentration from the Liverpool players. I was left with an engaging sense of satisfaction.
Cast in a single act, Aleko
is the first of Rachmaninov’s three completed operas. It was written in 1892 as a Moscow Conservatory graduation piece. The libretto was based on Pushkin’s poem, The Gypsies
. Petrenko conducts the Three Dances -
the first of which is the Woman’s Dance
with its gentle lyricism notable here for some beautiful string playing. The Intermezzo
marked Allegro pastorale
displays much affectionate writing whilst the Men’s Dance
with its robust opening has a convincingly furtive tread together with dramatic outbursts.
Rachmaninov composed his three movement Symphony No. 3
predominantly during his stay in Switzerland. It was in 1936 at Philadelphia that the première
was given under the baton of Leopold Stokowski. In preparation for a recording Rachmaninov subsequently revised it in 1938. In the right hands this symphony certainly has affecting power as I witnessed at the Musikfest Berlin 2012
with a quite stunning performance from the Deutsches-Symphonie Orchester Berlin under their principal conductor and artistic director Tugan Sokhiev. On this release Petrenko’s control of tension and dynamics of the Third Symphony
is superbly mastered. In the opening movement a yearning melody tinged with a nostalgia takes centre-stage. The melody makes way for a loud and angry section with a strong martial character. The plaintive horn solo and the haunting melody on the solo violin in the Adagio
are marvellously done and the wash of strings feels ravishingly passionate with a distinctly reflective tinge. Petrenko’s secure direction in the temperamental yet optimistic Finale
the Liverpool players brings both ebullience and real impetus. A passage of colourful woodwind interplay at 1:20-12:30 shows remarkable prowess. In the coda
the playing increases in weight and tempo bringing this magnificent performance to a resounding conclusion.
The Caprice bohémien
or Capriccio on Gypsy Themes
is in three linked sections. Although notorious for its unbalanced nature the score is given the best possible advocacy. The Liverpool Phil’s playing of the stirring gypsy themes in the final section has real zeal.
An enduring audience favourite, the Vocalise
is a haunting wordless melody; the final song from the composer’s Op. 34 set of fourteen. Here Petrenko conducts Rachmaninov’s own arrangement for orchestra and ensures an engaging melodic flow.
Under Petrenko the RLPO comes together as one splendid and powerful whole to produce these magnificent performances.
Symphony 1: Dan Morgan
Symphony 2: John Quinn
~~ Ian Lace
Symphony 3: John Quinn
Masterwork Index: Rachmaninov symphonies