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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Ostrov myortvikh (The Isle of the Dead), Op. 29 (1909) [21:19]
Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 (1895) [45:01]
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 19-21 October 2012 (Isle), 9-11 November 2012 (symphony), Orchestra Hall, Detroit, USA
NAXOS 8.573234 [66:20]

These days Detroit is in the news for all the wrong reasons, so it’s gratifying to report that the city’s orchestra is going from strength to strength. It’s a fine band, and since its inaugural concert in 1887 it has boasted a number of distinguished musical directors, among them Paul Paray (1951-1962), Antal Dorati (1977-1981) and now Leonard Slatkin (appointed 2008). Older readers may remember the DSO’s legendary Mercury recordings for Paray, the SACD versions of which now fetch silly money on the Net. Under Slatkin they have already recorded Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony and Vocalise (review) and the Third, coupled with the Symphonic Dances (review).
 
What really opened my eyes - and ears - to the orchestra’s continuing renaissance was their exuberant Copland collection, which has been well received on these pages (review). That said, they are up against formidable competition when it comes to these Russian masterpieces; I do admire Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Concertgebouw in both this symphony and The Isle of the Dead (Decca) and although I found Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony (BIS) a little underwhelming in the symphony I warmed to their performance over time (review).
 
Initial impressions of this Naxos coupling are favourable; the Böcklin-inspired tone poem is spaciously done, even if it's a little too measured for my taste; still, it does have that compelling - and necessary - sense of the inexorable about it. Is that enough? Perhaps not. Compared with Ashkenazy Slatkin lacks that even more important element of dark fantasy, of high colour and vivid contrasts, and that makes for a somewhat muted ride across the Styx. No such caveats about the sound though, which is wide, weighty and well balanced.
 
Slatkin’s reading of the First Symphony falls somewhere between the impassioned - and very volatile - Ashkenazy and the cooler, rather understated Lan Shui. In mitigation his players are polished and powerful - the tuttis are especially thrilling - but for all its precision this performance, like that of the preceding piece, is a little short on character. It certainly doesn’t have the sprightly narrative that I came to respect in that BIS account. True, Ashkenazy and his Dutch orchestra are given a big, beefy sound, but that’s a tad wearying after a while; by contrast the Naxos engineers manage a similar dynamic spread without the music sounding so obviously hi-fi.
 
I did enjoy Slatkin and the DSO’s reading of the symphony, but despite some spirited and incisive playing in the last movement especially their performance lacks the last degree of idiom and imaginative flair that enriches Ashkenazy’s account; it’s also very different from the lightness and clarity that infuse the Lan Shui version. Make no mistake, Slatkin’s take on both works is well worth hearing; indeed, I suspect these very solid, middle-of-the-road readings will appeal to many.
 
Good, if not up there with the best; the Detroit band are splendid though.
 
Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei

Masterwork Index: Rachmaninov symphony 1

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