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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor Op.27 (1906/7) [60:46]
Vocalise Op.34 No.14 (1916) [4:19]
Valer Sabadus (counter-tenor)
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Dmitrij Kitajenko
rec. Studio Stolberger Straß, Cologne, Germany, 2013
OEHMS CLASSICS OC441 [64:55]

Volume two of Dmitrij Kitajenko's survey of the Rachmaninov symphonies follows hard on the heels of the first disc which I enjoyed a lot. With that disc I was impressed by Kitajenko's willingness to revel in the detail of the scores and the excellence of the orchestra and their ability to enact the conductor's vision with such precision. The same virtues apply to this disc and backed up by excellent Oehms Classics engineering it is a worthy entrant into an already competitive marketplace.

Perhaps more surprisingly, Kitajenko brings a less individual approach to this score. For Symphony No.1 he favoured a rather broad epic approach which worked rather well. Before listening to this recording I wondered if he would follow a similar path. Not at all, in fact the interpretation could be viewed as quite centrist, not favouring either extreme but overall preferring tempi that are at the slower end of the 'standard' range. Kitajenko has an uncanny knack of being able to sustain slow tempi for Rachmaninov's many yearning lyrical melodies without falling into sentimentality or inertia. This is where the quality of his German orchestra really tells; even at moments when there might be a danger of any forward momentum being lost the inner pulse gently moves the music forward.

I accept that 'standard' is a rather amorphous and hard to define concept. But if I give two examples of the extremes of interpretation perhaps that will help. As it happens both approaches result in performances that are among my most favourite for this remarkable work. Grandest and most brooding is from Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the LSO originally on IMP and latterly licensed to Alto and Regis. This is one of those happy 'perfect storms' where interpretation, lush orchestral playing and rich detailed recording all come together to create a version that is individual but great. At the other end of the volatility spectrum lies the likes of Svetlanov in his earlier (cut) version with the Bolshoi Orchestra or Walter Weller with the LPO on Decca who is happy to push tempo extremes in both directions. Kitajenko is generally steady - however the main characteristic is not simply velocity - in fact his scherzo is slightly faster than the marking in the score - but the fact that he does not push the music to extremes be they tempo, dynamic or emotion.

In the opening movement Kitajenko chooses not to observe the exposition repeat. He is in good company here; Previn (on EMI and RCA), Ormandy (CBS and RCA), Ashkenazy, Svetlanov, Jansons, Maazel, Weller and Lopez-Cobos for example do not. Litton, Handley, Arwel Hughes, Downes (on an excellent but hard to find BBC Music Magazine recording) and Rozhdestvensky do. My preference - if the idea is we no longer 'cut' this symphony - is to include the repeat otherwise it is still in effect cut. This is a preference not a deal-breaker for me as many of the no-repeat group have other strong virtues as performances. Another facet of Kitajenko's careful music-making is attention to detail - particularly with regard to dynamic layering. With a work that gushes memorable melodies and ravishing orchestral textures there is a huge temptation to allow climax to pile on climax in some kind of sensual frenzy. By the side of those admittedly rather exciting versions Kitajenko can seem rather penny-plain. However with a score to hand it becomes clear that he asks the brass in particular to observe Rachmaninov's dynamics. The result is an essentially string-led interpretation with weight and sonority provided by the brass and wind as required. One interesting sonority is highlighted. Rachmaninov asks for the horns to handstop regularly throughout the work. The resulting sound is an unmistakeable sour - but often quiet - snarl. In this performance this is audible to a greater degree and consistent effect than usual However, not every detail registers ideally - some delightful woodwind counterpoint all but disappears and there are times when I think the strings should be engulfed by a flood of brass. This latter effect is the one I cherish most in the early Svetlanov where the Bolshoi trumpets with vibratos you can drive a bus through scythe their way through the violins. I once played that recording to a friend who found it coarse and ugly in the extreme - so you have been warned.

Likewise, in the Moderato section of the Scherzo there are little string portamenti that are not marked in the score that have become a kind of unspoken performance practice. A quick - but not comprehensive - straw poll of the versions I had to hand showed that versions as diverse as Ormandy, Downes, Handley, Svetlanov and Rozhdestvensky indulge in those expressive moments to some degree. Again I really like that but I know others do not and that the modern way is to find such accretions to a score in poor taste. Kitajenko avoids any hint of a slide but in its place finds a kind of focused simplicity, a held reserve that is wholly valid especially when played with such conviction as here. The way in which the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln follow their conductor's every gesture is clear not just in the subtle rubato of these lyrical passages but in the transitions between sections. In lesser performances the return from a lyrical melody to a brisk tempo 1 can result in clumsy gear changes and less than ideal ensemble. Kitajenko is a master at these fluent transitions and the players stick to him like glue.

A highlight of his unvarnished but affecting approach is the extended clarinet solo that opens the wonderful third movement Adagio. This is one of the great solos in the Romantic orchestral repertoire for clarinet and a showcase for any principal player. The unnamed performer here plays very much in the spirit of the overall vision of the work. His phrasing is subtle and understated, no dynamics are forced but the sense of held rapture is a joy to hear. Indeed all the solos in the work are played with great yet simple skill. The finale is the movement which was subjected to the most swingeing cuts back when the work as a whole was considered too long. Kitajenko's basic tempo is right on the upper end of the score's marking of minum/half note = 84-92. Perhaps towards the end of this movement - rehearsal figure 83 [track 4 approx. 11:00] - the overarching degree of careful control just begins to work against the spirit of Festive Finale. It goes without saying that Kitajenko and his players are very good - although I miss the detail of the glockenspiel and the blazing ff horns around figure 84 but these last few pages of score should unbutton so that the arrival of the orthodox chant in the brass five bars after figure 89 [about a minute half to go to the end] is the moment of ecstatic emotional release of the entire piece. Handley, in his underrated but truly excellent version on Tring - now available in various guises - is cathartic here while Rozhdestvensky is as epic as one might hope and expect. Kitajenko's horns are all but inaudible and the chant - the basic cell of which started the work nearly an hour earlier - verges on the perfunctory. After such a well conceived and executed performance to this point there is a slight sense of disappointment. Certainly a version for those who prefer their Rachmaninov less heart-on-sleeve.

The coupling offers a certain kind of unique selling point. Certainly I have never heard the famous Vocalise sung by a counter-tenor. Valer Sabadus is perfectly good - the pitch has been transposed down from the classic Anna Moffo version with Stokowski. Although it should be said that Moffo cheats the song down a semitone as well from the published C sharp minor key. More of a concern is a slight flutter that Sabadus adds to the end of many phrases which after a time begins to sound like a habit rather than expressively valid. In contrast Moffo seems ideally poised and unaffected. Kitajenko for once takes a rather forthright approach - completing the work in just over four minutes compared to Stokowski/Moffo at just over seven. This is as much to do with not taking either repeat as anything else but certainly nothing is indulged. I do think the third higher pitch that the soprano is able to take does allow the song to 'float' which rather rules out this version for me except in the category of curio.

As mentioned, the engineering is pleasingly realistic - balances are not always as revealing as in some recordings but I believe this is a reflection of artistic/musical choices made by the performers rather than any technical failing. This was recorded in concert - the audience is attentive and silent throughout - only at the ends of movements does any slight rustling of seats reveal their presence. The liner is in German and English only - printed side by side - is perfectly good if not particularly revelatory either about the composer or the works.

The symphony is a work which has an enduring fascination for me. Certainly I will enjoy listening to this version again if only to appreciate the care and skill of all involved. If I happen to prefer a rather more expressively extreme approach than offered here that is not to diminish the quality on display.

Nick Barnard