Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Three Dances from Aleko (1892) [12:16]
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-7)* [60:38]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 28 April 2012; *1-2 November 2011, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 9 15473 2 [73:05]

The very first disc by Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO that I reviewed was their outstanding coupling of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and Isle of the Dead. In that review I expressed the hope that they would record the Second symphony. Now, some three years and several well-received discs later, they have done so. It seems clear that a symphony cycle is in progress because this follows fairly hot on the heels of a recording of the Third Symphony that I welcomed back in May 2012. In fact, my colleague, Ralph Moore selected that as one of his Recordings of the Year for 2012. In so doing he commented that the RLPO is “reinvigorated” under Petrenko’s leadership. I agree and this disc provides further proof of that reinvigoration.
Petrenko’s new recording is up against some formidable competition, including the classic André Previn/LSO reading. Another strong challenge comes from a recording by Valery Gergiev, which I reviewed not long ago. Since then I’ve been listening also to an LSO recording conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (review) which I’d overlooked and to which my attention was kindly drawn by MusicWeb International reader, Martin Walker. There are a good number of other recordings with excellent credentials, as a look at our Masterw orks Index will show. The size of the field is in itself eloquent testimony to how highly the symphony is regarded nowadays after a long struggle to establish a secure place in the repertoire.
I think Petrenko miscalculates slightly at the very start of the symphony. The motto theme, which is given out straightaway by the lower strings, is so quiet that it’s insufficiently distinct. I played all three of the versions mentioned above at the same volume setting and in each case the theme emerges quietly but clearly. Actually, in the case of the Previn it’s too present unless one reduces the volume setting because his recording, made in 1972, is cut at rather a high level and, as a result can sound a bit brash at times. Petrenko is spacious in his treatment of the introduction and I wondered if he was a little too spacious but, in fact, reaching the Allegro at 4:46 he’s pretty much in line with Previn and Gergiev: Rozhdestvensky is a touch too expansive, I think; the Allegro arrives at 5:10 in his performance. I must say, however, that though the stopwatch might suggest otherwise I felt Previn’s conducting invested the introduction with slightly more of a sense of forward momentum than does Petrenko’s. Previn’s recording was one of the first to eschew the damaging cuts that many conductors had inflicted on the score - indeed, my copy of its first CD incarnation proudly carries the statement “complete version”. However, in one sense Previn’s performance is incomplete; he doesn’t make the repeat of the first movement exposition, which involves some four minutes of music. Petrenko, I’m glad to say, follows the example of Gergiev and Rozhdestvensky in observing the repeat. That can make the first movement very long unless the performance is a good one; Petrenko justifies the inclusion through the quality of his performance.
I enjoyed Petrenko’s account of the main body of the first movement though there were one or two instances where I felt he could and should have moved the music on just a little more; one such instance is Rachmaninov’s lingering passage - it’s lingering under all our four conductors - immediately before the development section. The development itself (from 13:13) is handled pretty convincingly by Petrenko and there’s a satisfying amount of dramatic thrust in the performance. The RLPO, reinvigorated by their music director, as Ralph Moore so justly observed, play keenly and strongly for him. Just once or twice Petrenko is a little too ready to indulge Rachmaninov’s temptingly indulgent phrases. One example that caught my attention is the passage from 18:56 where we hear once more material that first appeared in the exposition (at 6:27). I think that on its first appearance Petrenko took it marginally faster than he does at 18:56 and the fleeter tempo works better. The concluding pages of the movement come off very well indeed; Petrenko makes this passage lively and exciting. Overall, I think the first movement is a success and the performance competes well with both Previn and Gergiev. Though I enjoy Rozhdestvensky’s account, not least on account of the sumptuous LSO playing, I think he can be too broad in his approach to this movement. Significantly, his performance comes in at 24:30, whereas Petrenko’s and Gergiev’s timings are broadly in line with each other at 23:22 and 22:39 respectively and Previn’s 18:59 would be comparable but for the omission of the repeat.
Rozhdestvensky’s version of the scherzo is uncompetitive: his tempi are far too deliberate for my taste. The other three versions are all very exciting. Petrenko launches the movement propulsively, getting the RLPO to articulate the rhythms strongly. When Rachmaninov introduces one of his trademark longing string melodies (1:17) Petrenko gives it full value and ensures the music is warmly phrased. At the meno mosso (3:30) the fugal music is strongly etched though his fiddles aren’t divided: Riccardo Chailly showed the benefit of such an arrangement in his recent superb live performance of the symphony in Birmingham (review).
The RLPO’s principal clarinettist - who, sadly, is un-credited - makes the most of the famous solo at the start of the slow movement, playing it very eloquently. By contrast, Gergiev’s player sounds a touch reticent, at least as recorded, and the tone is rather narrow. Andrew Marriner is very fine for Rozhdestvensky; his tone is lovely and he leads the listener on through the long solo with some fine phrasing and super dynamic contrasts. Jack Brymer, for Previn, is not, perhaps, as daring with the dynamics as Marriner but his plangent tone conveys Rachmaninov’s tender melancholy beautifully and his playing is marvellously controlled; he remains in a class of his own. Petrenko’s player benefits from a better, more modern recording than Brymer and I love the silky tone. Petrenko is very convincing in this movement, for example building it to an ardent climax at the end of the first half (6:39). All departments of the RLPO play splendidly for him and I don’t think anyone hearing his account of this gloriously romantic movement will be disappointed.
The finale begins exultantly; Petrenko invests it with fine sweeping energy. After an explosive start Rachmaninov can’t resist another excursion down a lyrical byway. The yearning string theme at this point (2:50) is given full value by Petrenko but I like the way in which, even here, he maintains an underlying urgency. This reading of the finale is excellent and sets the seal on a very fine reading of the symphony.
I haven’t had the opportunity to compare this new Petrenko performance exhaustively against the competition, which I’m aware is formidable. However, against the three versions mentioned in this review, all of which have strong claims on the attention of collectors, I think it stands up pretty well. I feel my expectations have been met. The three dances from the one act opera, Aleko, constitute an attractive filler.
There’s a good note by David Gutman and the engineers - two separate teams - have ensured that the performances are reported in good sound.
John Quinn 

Masterwork Index: Rachmaninov Symphony 2

A very fine reading of Rachmaninov’s great symphony, which stands up pretty well against strong competition.

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