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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 (1909) [21:45]
The Rock, Op. 7 (1893) [13:31]
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1941)* [35:11]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. June 2009; *March 2008, Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway.
BIS-CD-1751 [71:27]

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What a magnificent work is Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances! I first got to know it years ago through an LP recording by Eugene Ormandy; coupled with Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony if I remember correctly. Over the years I’ve heard a good number of recordings and my current favourite has been a splendid performance by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (review). Since Petrenko’s disc features exactly the same coupling as this new disc from Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic it was logical to do some comparisons. Actually “newly issued” might have been a better term to use of this BIS CD since the recordings have been ‘in the can’ for a surprisingly long period.
I’ve heard quite a number of Andrew Litton recordings in the past, mainly with the Dallas Symphony, but I don’t believe I’ve heard any recordings he’s made with the Bergen orchestra. He has been their chief conductor – and latterly music director – since 2003. Given that I have read glowing accounts of the three great Stravinsky ballets from Bergen/Litton (review review) the opportunity of hearing the partnership in Rachmaninov was not to be missed.
The Symphonic Dances open promisingly: there’s excellent weight and definition in the playing – and in the recording also – and the start of the first dance. There’s an abundance of detail, such as the lower register of the piano (1:29). I was really impressed with Litton’s handling of this music although one detail irritated me a little, namely a tendency to hold back those two emphatic punctuating chords that appear at several points in the score - for example at 2:38 and again at 9:38. For my taste Litton is too rhetorical with this gesture but it’s only a detail. On the other side of the ledger, must be set such fine things as the lovely, wistful saxophone solo (from 3:38) and, indeed, the splendid woodwind playing throughout that episode. When the strings take over that melody (from 5:32) they do so delicately at first, as they should, before soaring ardently a little later on. At the start of the spooky passage that leads back to the allegro (7:23) I relished the underpinning provided by the sustained low note on the bassoon – or is it a contrabassoon? I’ll compare Petrenko’s version in a minute but that note, while it registers, doesn’t make quite the same discreet impact on his recording. One other point of detail: at 10:17 the yearning passage for strings is sumptuously played in Bergen and the recording gives the listener a splendid sense of the left-right spread of the orchestra.
When I put on the Petrenko disc to compare the first dance I did so without altering the controls on my system and shall we say I was relieved I was in the house alone or I might have had complaints! His Avie recording is at a higher level than the BIS sound for Litton. It’s also somewhat more up-front and has huge impact while the Bergen sound gives a more realistic concert hall aural perspective. I make those comments as a statement of fact – at least as it sounds to me - and not to express a preference.

Petrenko is a bit faster than Litton at the start of I and he injects more vigour. The Liverpool saxophone is a bit more prominent and Petrenko takes the episode that begins with the saxophone more expansively than Litton does. The pacing isn’t the only difference. I had the impression that Petrenko moulds and phrases the music rather more. Some may like that though I wonder if Litton’s approach doesn’t sound a bit more natural and flowing. The Liverpool orchestra is in no way outshone by their Norwegian colleagues in this central, nostalgically lyrical section. Indeed, this is a good point to say that both orchestras are excellent throughout and I wouldn’t wish to claim that one is better than the other. When the quick tempo is re-established (at 8:05 in his performance) Petrenko displays great dash from then to the conclusion of the movement. One point that caught my attention is the different treatments of the yearning passage for strings near the end, to which I referred above. Petrenko is much brisker here than Litton because he maintains his basic tempo while Litton slows quite significantly at that point so that we can savour the passage – and his orchestra’s delivery of it.
At the start of II the speed changes quite a few times but Litton’s basic tempo is swifter than Petrenko’s. When the waltz really gets under way Litton’s phrasing is highly persuasive and he imparts a fine sweep to the music. The Bergen strings’ tone is satisfyingly rich. Litton is very convincing in the way he shapes the little hesitations and the rubato. Towards the end (from 8:10) the whirling woodwinds scamper through the music splendidly until the music seems to vanish into thin air. By comparison Petrenko indulges in a little too much moulding in the opening pages and thereafter. Petrenko is imaginative but arguably there’s a bit more natural flow in Litton’s approach. Petrenko really whips up the pace in the last couple of minutes.
The final dance finds our two conductors turning in quite different performances. Litton is gripping at the start, investing the rhythms with great bite and energy. In the substantial slower section (3:40-9:45) he imparts a fine amount of nostalgic reflection. This whole episode is marvellously done and if you have harboured any doubts as to whether Litton is a fine Rachmaninov interpreter these pages should convince you. When the fast music reappears his orchestra responds with dexterity and there’s real drive in the closing few minutes. The coda (from 13:48) is very exciting: the Bergen brass make a thrilling sound and the percussion is superbly recorded. However, depending on your view of the music this movement is where Petrenko really plays his trump card. His opening is even more arresting than Litton’s, the sound absolutely superb and the playing even more urgent than what we heard from Bergen. His pace is fast and furious but though he asks a lot from his orchestra the RLPO articulates the music splendidly. Overall, he’s a touch more expansive than Litton in the middle section (3:21 – 9:56) but, my goodness, when the tempo picks up thereafter the performance is simply electrifying. Petrenko really puts his players on their mettle but they respond with alacrity and, though the music is vivid and very fast it never feels overdriven, still less out of control. The music-making is full of thrust and dynamism and it’s a very exciting experience indeed. Petrenko really has the edge here and his coda (13:36) is thrilling. Incidentally, he lets the tam-tam reverberate at the end whereas Litton has the sound cut off. For me, though Litton gives a really fine account of the Symphonic Dances, one to which I know I’ll return with pleasure, Petrenko seals the deal with the third dance.
A while ago three of my colleagues undertook a ‘blind’ review of ten recordings of The Isle of the Dead. I found the results fascinating, not least because I’d reviewed a couple of the selected recordings myself, most recently the Petrenko recording, which two of my colleagues selected as their preferred version. It’s been very interesting to revisit this recording in detail as a comparison with Litton’s account. Litton distils a good, brooding atmosphere right from the start and you do get a sense, as you listen, of a slow boat on the water. He builds the piece very well over the first eight or nine minutes. I like the dark, menacing brass at 11:04; allied with suitably weighty strings at this point, the players convey a doom-laden scenario. From around 14:00 Litton really whips up the passion while maintaining his slow pulse – the strings are ardent, the brass powerful - and the huge yet brief climax (16:10) is very strongly projected. The quiet epilogue as the Isle recedes again into the distance is very well managed. So, a fine account of Rachmaninov’s tone poem from Bergen: what about the Merseyside competition?
Petrenko is, I fancy, marginally swifter in the 5/8 music at the start but the difference between him and Litton is slight. Where the real contrast lies is in the recording itself. The somewhat closer sound on the Avie disc serves the music a little less well – in comparison with the BIS sound – than was the case in the Symphonic Dances. Avie’s recording certainly emphasises the power of Petrenko’s interpretation but arguably the results are less atmospheric than Litton – and his engineers – achieve. While my admiration for Petrenko’s performance hasn’t diminished I now think that for this piece the somewhat greater sense of distance that one experiences in the Litton recording is preferable. In Petrenko’s hands the middle of the piece is potent, though never overblown, and his climaxes have a shattering power. I suppose it all depends on whether you feel Rachmaninov’s Isle should be viewed from off-shore or much closer to the coastline. I must re-emphasise that Petrenko’s performance, recorded with great presence, remains highly impressive.
Litton complete his programme with the early orchestral fantasy, The Rock. Here we can enjoy some excellent work from the Bergen woodwinds, especially in the opening minutes. Later on the passionate section (from about 8:45 to 11:00) is strongly projected. The piece isn’t as interesting as the other two works on the disc but the Bergen Philharmonic maintains the very high standards of playing that are in evidence throughout the remainder of the programme.
So, it’s make your mind up time: which of these discs should I advise you to acquire? The Litton disc is superb from start to finish but, then, so is Petrenko’s. The recorded sound may play a part in your decision. The sound on the Petrenko disc is spectacular; it remains one of the best orchestral recordings I’ve heard for a long time. I now feel that perhaps the audio may not quite bring out the best in the opening and closing pages of The Isle of the Dead though the point is marginal and the impact in the climaxes of that work and in Symphonic Dances is undeniable. If you prefer a slightly more distanced concert hall perspective then Litton may be your preferred choice. I would not care to choose between the two orchestras: both are on tip-top form. Both conductors are extremely persuasive and if I found a point in the Symphonic Dances where I preferred Litton then, invariably, a couple of minutes later something in Petrenko’s reading gave him an edge. As I said, the Petrenko performance of the third dance tips the scales in his favour.
I listened to Litton’s SACD in conventional CD format and obtained excellent results: the sound is clear, the aural image is very truthful with lots of detail coming through very naturally and the balance is excellent. BIS provide a good booklet with a useful note by Andrew Huth.
Weighing it all up, if you already have Petrenko then you can probably rest content. However, if you haven’t got these works in your collection then this superb Litton disc demands your attention just as strongly as does Petrenko. The ideal option – but expensive – is to follow my example and have both!
John Quinn