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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Complete Symphonies and Concertos
Track listing below review
rec. various locations 1959-90. DDD; ADD
ALTO ALC6005 [6 CDs: 411:49]

This set is a useful compilation by Alto of all the symphonies and concertos, plus various other works of a related nature. None of the recordings is new – the oldest (Concerto no.4) dates back to 1959, while various other items are from 1990 although the First Symphony and Isle of the Dead were not issued until 2009.

As you can see, there is a mixture of performers, and the orchestras are Russian, British, Polish and American. This inevitably gives the set, along with the age discrepancy, a heterogeneous character, and the quality of the performances and recordings are indeed both very uneven. That said, there are some gems here too, making it overall a worthwhile investment, especially at the competitive price of just over £24.00 at present. Let me run through the discs one by one.

The first contains Symphony No.1 and the symphonic poem Isle of the Dead. There are about fifteen years between the completion of these two works, and the symphonic poem belongs to the composer’s full artistic maturity. It is a powerful, brooding piece, based on the celebrated paintings by the Swiss artist Böcklin. The opening has that marvellous evocation of the doom-laden boat-ride to the dreaded Isle, employing the unusual (at the time) 5/8 time-signature. As in so many of Rachmaninov’s works, the ancient plainsong Dies Irae (‘Day of Wrath’) is never far away - the composer’s obsessive memento mori.

The Symphony No. 1 is a far less assured piece; and yet it is unmistakable as a work by Rachmaninov. It had a famously disastrous première — allegedly in part because the conductor, Glazunov, was said to be drunk at the time — which totally undermined Rachmaninov’s confidence in his composing ability. This confidence he only fully recovered with the Piano Concerto no.2. In fact he never lost his affection for this early symphonic essay, which on a good day is enjoyable and powerful. Is this, then, a good performance? On the whole, yes, I believe so; the first movement has great impetus, and the playing for the impassioned second theme — a foretaste of the wonderful lyrical outpourings of later works — is superb. Just listen to those glorious strings around 4:26 on track 1. The downside is the rather boxy acoustic of the film studio, which makes the blatant sound of the Moscow trumpets really unpleasant at times. The Allegro animato that follows is a highly effective scherzo, which betrays the strong influence of Tchaikovsky at this stage of Rachmaninov’s development – hardly surprising in 1890s Russia, and something happily acknowledged by the composer. It could come from a Tchaikovsky ballet – perhaps Nutcracker – and has a beguiling blend of elegance and agitation, with occasional more forceful outbursts. It is beautifully done here, and the quiet uneasiness of the conclusion is magical.

The conductor, Pavel Kogan, knows his onion-domes when it comes to Russian music; he is the son of Leonid Kogan, and at the time had been the conductor of the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra for many years. So, whatever incidental drawbacks there may be, there is an unmistakable authenticity to this reading, and the lovely Larghetto of Symphony No. 1 is given with a warmth and intensity that is very persuasive. You are left wondering how on earth anyone could miss the great talent on display here, as equally in the rhythmic energy and extroversion of the final Allegro con fuoco. Apart from the reservations expressed above, the recording has stood the test of time well, some of which is no doubt down to the excellent re-mastering by Paul Arden-Taylor for Alto. My personal choice for a more recent recording of these works would be the superb Chandos recording by Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic, which also includes the ‘Youth Symphony’, here located on disc D.

The next disc is devoted to one work, Symphony No.2, given without any of the cuts that are sometimes made — though not as often as they used to be — and including the big first movement repeat. Quite apart from those considerations, here is a truly distinguished account of this masterpiece; Rozhdestvensky’s approach is unhurried, spacious, yet he and the orchestra generate tremendous tension and power in the great climaxes. The orchestral playing is very special, with a masterly version of the clarinet solo of the slow movement by Andrew Marriner. Indeed, I can’t remember hearing a more telling performance of this Adagio, which must surely be Rachmaninov’s greatest single span of lyrical music (review).

If the first two discs in this set are highly rewarding, the third is a bit of a mixed affair. I’ve never been convinced by the Third Symphony, and although the Moscow players, again under Kogan, do their best to advocate the work, it still seems a struggle. There just isn’t that sense of purpose and direction that one finds in Rachmaninov’s best music. However, if you do admire and enjoy the work, the performance has the same merits - and occasional drawbacks - as the first disc. This is not surprising as it was recorded at the same series of sessions (review).

The Symphonic Dances, on the other hand, are quite another matter. Though written immediately after the Third Symphony, by simply abandoning the title ‘Symphony’, Rachmaninov seems to have set his creative imagination free. Many people regard this as his greatest work, and in this exciting and passionate performance, it’s easy to understand why. These dances are every bit as ‘symphonic’ as the Third Symphony; but they have a spark of spontaneity and originality that seems to be missing from op.44. Brilliant touches of orchestration abound; the percussion are used particularly effectively, and the introduction of the alto saxophone brings a new colour to Rachmaninov’s palette. The last movement, all the way from its almost Debussian opening harmonies to its Mephistophelean dance is a tour de force. It is based on ecclesiastical chants including, you guessed it, the Dies Irae. This is given a thrilling performance by Kogan and his forces. There are many superb recordings of this op.45, including ones by Järvi, Bychkov (DVD) and Jurowski. The present one, however, is not outclassed, even if the recording suffers inevitably by comparison with the best recent ones.

Disc 4 (or ‘D’ as Alto has it) is a particularly interesting one. Described rather vaguely as ‘Other Symphonies and Concertos’, it marks the only appearance in the set by Leonard Slatkin with the excellent St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The later tracks bring us, firstly, the so-called ‘Youth Symphony’, being a single movement of a planned symphony, composed in 1891 by the then eighteen year-old composer. To say that this movement shows the influence of Tchaikovsky would be a glaring understatement, as it is openly modelled on the first movement of the older composer’s Fourth Symphony. It is fascinating to hear Rachmaninov fashioning musical ideas and structures which mirror his musical hero of that time.

Then comes a performance of the Paganini Variations by Abbey Simon which is technically brilliant but lacking in true poetry. Disappointing; but the disc is rescued by the first four tracks, which contain the wonderful choral symphony The Bells, in which the composer set poems by Edgar Allen Poe in Russian translations – except that here, Slatkin gives us an English translation. Not the original Poe, because that wouldn’t fit the music, but a translation-of-the-translation. There are only a few recordings to have done this — and Robert Shaw’s version is difficult to acquire at present — and I was delighted to hear it, especially in such a powerful and committed performance. Nevertheless, it is extremely disappointing that Alto have not managed to include the texts in the booklet, especially as they are so difficult to track down, even on the internet.

The great mystery is why this powerful, thrilling masterpiece is as relatively little known and rarely performed as it is; it’s full of rare beauties, and is also concise, never for a moment outstaying its welcome. Indeed, at the end of the final song, ‘The Iron bells’, as the strings opened out into their epilogue, I found myself wishing that Rachmaninov had indulged himself a little more. There are three soloists, soprano, tenor and baritone, and Slatkin seems to have deliberately avoided going for Slavic voices, choosing instead singers with fresh, well focused tones. All, however, deliver their numbers with great emotional intensity, and are well worth hearing.

The last two discs give us the concertos; numbers 1 and 3 on Disc 5 (E), and 2 and 3 on Disc 6 (F). The pianist in Concertos 1 and 3 is the American Byron Janis. Still very much alive today, his career is a fascinating one; around the time of these recordings, he was seen as a major talent. Thereafter, his work was blighted by a pernicious form of arthritis, which made playing difficult and painful. Yet he never really stopped playing, and eventually overcame the illness in a remarkable way.

Janis’s playing of Concerto no.1 is powerful and expressive, and rules out any feeling that this is an ‘apprentice’ work. Yes, there are echoes of both Grieg and Tchaikovsky but it is full of wonderful melodies – the main theme of the first movement is particularly characteristic – and has a slow movement of touching intimacy. The Concerto no. 3 is another assured and highly idiomatic performance, though I was disappointed by the contribution of the London Symphony Orchestra, not at their best here. To be fair, they are not helped by a recorded balance that favours the soloist very much at their expense. There is also a lack of treble and an indistinct, rumbling bass tone.

The final disc is worth the wait, and contains the two really outstanding, unmissable performances in the set. First up is a frighteningly powerful version of the Second Piano Concerto by Sviatoslav Richter, recorded in 1959 when he was at the zenith of his powers. His view of the work is dark, uncompromising, a fact emphasised by the unusually slow tempo he chooses for the first movement, set in motion by resounding low Cs on the piano. Richter of all people does not miss the moments of lyricism but he manages to instil in the whole work a steely resolve which I find gripping. The weakness is the orchestra. Although the musicians undoubtedly play their hearts out for Richter, the Warsaw orchestra’s ensemble and, in the case of the wind players, tone control, is not up to the highest standards demanded by Richter’s qualities. In the end, though, their shortcomings are not great enough to detract seriously from a truly stunning performance.

In a totally different way, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s recording of Concerto no.4 is quite as remarkable. Perhaps, like most people, I have been guilty of under-valuing this work. In Michelangeli’s hands, the impression I now get is of a work which is more of a concertante than an out-and-out solo concerto. That is to say the piano is the first among equals, the orchestra so much more than a backdrop to the solo part. Michelangeli clearly senses this, and his interplay with the musicians, the feeling that he is really listening to them, is revelatory. Soloists often pay lip-service to this aspect of a concerto, but in practice then allow even their most insignificant passage-work to drown out important orchestral detail. Interpreted in this way, the Fourth Concerto emerges as an engaging and highly original work, showing the influences of important younger composers of the 1920s – Bartók, Les Six, even Prokofiev.

This boxed set is a mixed bag, then but it contains enough music-making of real distinction to make it a most worthwhile addition to the shelves. In at least four of the items – Symphony no.2, The Bells and Piano Concertos nos. 2 and 4 – we have performances of lasting excellence; in their way still among the finest available.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous reviews of other releases: Concerto 3 ~~ Concertos 2 & 4

Masterwork Index: Concertos ~~ Symphonies
 

Contents
CD 1 [67:16]
Symphony no.1 in D minor, op.13 ( [44:22]
Isle of the Dead [22:44]
Moscow State Symphony Orchestra/Pavel Kogan
rec. Moscow Film Synchro Studios, Oct.1990
CD 2 [66:13]
Symphony no.2 in E minor, op.27 [66:13]
London Symphony Orchestra/Gennadi Rozhdestvensky
rec. All Saints Church, Tooting, London, UK, 10-11 March 1988
CD 3 [77:12]
Symphony no.3, op.44 [41:52]
Symphonic Dances, op.45 [35:07]
Moscow State Symphony Orchestra/Pavel Kogan
rec. Moscow Film Synchro Studio, October 1990
CD 4 [70:08]
Symphony The Bells, op.35 [34:56]
Youth Symphony in D minor [11:26]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op.43 [23:28]
Marianna Christos (soprano), Arnold Voketaitis (tenor), Walter Planté (baritone), Abbey Simon (piano), St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Leonard Slatkin
rec. Vox, October 1990 (The Bells and Youth Symphony), and 1977 (Paganini Rhapsody).
CD 5 [71:00]
Piano Concerto no.1 in F sharp minor, op.1 [24:40]
Byron Janis (piano), Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Kondrashin
Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor, op.30 [38:02]
Byron Janis (piano), London Symphony Orchestra/Antal Dorati
Prelude in E flat major, op.23 no.6 [2:51]
Prelude in C sharp minor, op.3 no.2 [3:49]
Byron Janis (piano)
rec. Moscow, 1961 (Piano Concerto 1), Moscow Town Hall, June 1961 (Piano Concerto 3 and Preludes)
CD 6 [60:00]
Piano Concerto no.2 in C minor, op. 18 [34:21]
Sviatoslav Richter (piano), Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra/Stanislav Wislocki
Piano Concerto no.4 in G minor, op.40 [24:27]
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra/Ettore Gracis
rec. 1959 (Piano Concerto 2), 1960 (Piano Concerto 4)