Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, [63:37]
Anatol LIADOV (1855-1914)
The Enchanted Lake [7:18]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. June 2013 (Liadov) and June 2014 (Rachmaninov), Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway
BIS BIS2071 SACD [70:54]
Andrew Litton’s Rachmaninov Second Symphony is a connoisseur’s version, and I mean that in a good way. If you love this piece, and have already heard four or five great interpretations of it, this will be stimulating and will give your ears a new angle on familiar music.
One way Litton achieves this is by making the orchestra’s sound as “romantic” as possible. What this means, especially, is lots of portamenti (“slides”) in the strings, the violins swooping and swooning through the adagio and finale as if they are a 1940s Hollywood orchestra. Litton also takes great care to underline the interplay between the different string sections; rarely does one hear so clearly the conversation taking place in the work’s introduction, as themes are echoed through the cellos, violas, and violins. Around 16:50-17:00, the double basses clearly echo the angry fanfare from the French horns, something I’d never heard on a recording before.br>
Litton takes the exposition repeat in the first movement, extending that section to 23 minutes, but he also adopts a basically pretty fast tempo. That movement’s central climax is seriously exciting, as is the fugueish middle section of the scherzo. The adagio is another chance for the Bergen strings to converse with each other, and the passionate result is a more-equitable dialogue between all five groupings. Who knew the cellos had such gorgeous parts here? Cellists, I guess. The Bergen Philharmonic may not be the biggest or most Russian orchestra, but they play phenomenally well, as you will expect if you’ve heard their previous work.
To be sure, I don’t think this is a first-choice recording. The greats are still the greats: André Previn and the LSO on EMI; Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and, again, the LSO; and more recently, Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony. This year’s most straightforwardly exciting, and red-bloodedly Russian, recording is Kitajenko’s, with the Gurzenich Orchestra in Cologne; Kitajenko has an extra gear of power and thrill in the finale, which Litton misses. Compared to Kitajenko or Rozhdestvensky, Andrew Litton’s is a more subtle, cultivated alternative, with power that sneaks up on you rather than grabbing you from the first seconds.
I’m not saying Litton is wrong; he is only different. His interpretation is thoughtful, the Bergen Philharmonic is totally outstanding, and the recorded sound from BIS is as phenomenally detailed as it always is. BIS seems to align itself with conductors who will bring out the best in an orchestra’s color palette, so they know that this type of playing fits with their microphone setup — my review copy came from eClassical. Is this a first choice? No. But we’re classical collectors, and we tend to have six or seven choices for as great a symphony as this one. Bergen/Litton definitely deserves to be on your shelf, for comparison and for simple enjoyment.
The Symphony is such a satisfying work on its own that it took me three listens to this CD before I finally got around to the encore: Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake. This relative rarity, a colourful tone-picture, is played - what better word for it? - enchantingly.
Dan Morgan and