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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 1 in D minor Op.13 (1895/6) [46:51]
The Rock Op.7 (1893) [15:45]
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Dmitrij Kitajenko
rec. Studio Stolberger Straß, Cologne, Germany 2013
OEHMS CLASSICS OC440 [62:53]

On 15 March 1897 Rachmaninov attended the premiere of his Symphony No.1 - his largest orchestral work to date and one in which he had invested much time, energy and emotion. The catastrophe of that first performance is well known and the lasting impact on the composer life-long. Indeed he came to regard the work at best as requiring drastic revision and at worst destruction or at least an embargo on it ever being played again. The manuscript score remains lost and it was assumed the music would never be heard again until a set of parts were discovered in the library of Leningrad Conservatoire two years after the composer's death. From this a new score was reconstructed and the second performance given in 1945. Critical opinion will still tell you that this is an uneven and occasionally crude work. That may be true, but I would suggest if the symphony had been revised we would now be revisiting the "original" score and marvelling at the confident, dramatic handling of both orchestra and musical material that this version contains. Rachmaninov was just 24 when this work made its debut and it remains one of the most interesting and novel of Russian Romantic Symphonies - musical warts and all.

History has been kinder on the work than the critics at the first performance. The catalogue contains numerous performances many of which are very fine. So many and of such quality that it does beg the question if we need another version. This is the first Rachmaninov disc from Dmitrij Kitajenko and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln of which he has been honorary conductor since 2009. Since this combination have produced for Oehms cycles of the complete Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky symphonies I suspect this represents volume 1 of another cycle. I have to say I like Kitajenko's conducting. He is more interventionist than many contemporary conductors and the choices he makes are always interesting and challenging even if occasionally they can seem wilful.

One of the latter-day critiques of this symphony is that there are poorly handled passages in the middle movements particularly. Geoffrey Norris in the volume on the composer in the Dent Master Musicians series writes of "serious longueurs" and "rambling repetitions" and he mentions a composer(?) sanctioned cut of 36 bars. Some modern performances have sought to counter this by adopting flowing and even fast tempi. Famous - possibly infamous depending on your reaction to Soviet brass playing - is Svetlanov's coruscating performance with the USSR Symphony Orchestra. He makes a positive virtue out of the primary-colour orchestration and red-blooded emotionalism of the music. Likewise, Ashkenazy for Decca with the Concertgebouw produces a performance a good five minutes quicker - more fluent is probably a better term - than Kitajenko.

Kitajenko's approach is probably best characterised as Epic/Heroic. He does not shirk opportunities to drive the music forward but just at moments where lingering might seem counter-productive he is willing to slow right down to near stasis. The fact that this works at all is due to the superb control and poise of his German players and the excellence of the Oehms recording which is the perfect balance of rich and detailed. They orchestra respond to his direction with beautifully nuanced playing; gently expressive phrasing from wind and strings alike. All of this is based on a typically Germanic orchestral tone that is built upon a wonderfully rich and firm bass line and brass that can speak with a thrillingly burnished well balanced tone. This choral quality is especially apt in this work where so much of the primary material is based upon Russian liturgical chants. This is clear in the very opening bars where after an initial ornamented turn the full orchestra intones one such chant that proves to be a building block for much to come. The swaying second subject written in a subtly ambiguous 7/4 meno mosso is yearningly beautiful in Kitajenko's hands and he very skilfully links this to the following ff outburst by pulling back on that dynamic. Svetlanov offers neither the subtlety of 7/4 phrasing nor the sense of continuum into the unison ff. Instead we get a volcanic eruption of string tone which I absolutely adore. Perhaps, just perhaps, Kitajenko is playing a longer and certainly subtler game - indeed one that looks ahead to later Rachmaninov works. Kitajenko's individual movement timings are not particularly slow - Ashkenazy is the exception by his speed rather than the other way around. The climax of the movement, technically, musically and emotionally is the maestoso section after figure 8 - the 1947 first edition of the score can be followed on IMSLP - where the heavy brass intone an extended chant over fanfaring brass, cutting string pizzicati and dancing woodwind. It's an exhilarating passage and one that proves just what an inspired writer for the orchestra Rachmaninov could be even at this early age. This same passage highlights the question of editions with this work - or to be more specific the use of percussion. The score was recreated from parts and there is a question about how much of the percussion scoring should be included. The 1947 edition on IMSLP contains the least percussion. Some recordings seemed to have followed this version. So Svetlanov, Maazel and Jansons are percussively 'bare' here. After that it seems almost a case of individual conductor taste. Previn and Kocsis add a glockenspiel doubling the dancing wind. Kitajenko has a bass drum and suspended cymbal but no glockenspiel whereas Andrew Litton on Virgin has it all but seems to opt for crash cymbals instead. In terms of quantity of percussion as, apparently, does the recent highly regarded Petrenko recording which I have not heard. This is just one example of the variety of versions that can be heard and these differences occur to differing degrees throughout the work. I think it would be wrong to base a final judgement on the inclusion or omission of some percussion writing. My instinct is that Rachmaninov would have pruned some of it if the work had been revised.

Where Kitajenko is unusual is his willingness to linger lovingly in the lyrical passages. This links the music forward to the achingly Romantic melodies of Rachmaninov's later more famous music. This is particularly true of the slow third movement. In his study of Rachmaninov's orchestral works Patrick Piggott describes it thus: "It is likely Rachmaninov would have made considerable changes to the slow movement [which] includes an inept middle section ... themes combine to form a gloomy but unmemorable bass theme ... a passage which even the most careful performance does not save from banality." Kitajenko flies directly in the face of such an admonition and triumphantly makes a virtue out of the potential gloom. As before, his musical vision is helped greatly by the dark rich weight of the orchestra's playing and the excellence of the Oehms engineering.

Right up to the finale, I have been surprised but impressed by this broad and weighty approach. Kitajenko carries this through to the finale which he plays at a positively steady - majestic perhaps - speed. The approach is wholly in keeping with what has come before but I am less convinced. The score marking has the main tempo indication as Allegro con fuoco with the crochet/quarter note at 152 beats per minute. The fiery "con fuoco" is the key for me here; the Kitajenko tempo - which does produce a final grand pay-off is simply not that. This is a young man's work with a young man's passions and excesses. Kitajenko while giving the music an impressive grandeur deprives it of the sense of impetuous "vengeance is mine" which hangs over the work as its famed motto. Svetlanov it turns out is just about the only conductor to take that tempo marking at face value. It makes for a wild ride into the abyss - one which the rather old Melodiya engineering simply can't cope with but by goodness it is thrilling. I return to my earlier description of this interpretation as 'epic'. That seems especially appropriate for the finale. The movement builds to a cataclysmic climax and a crash on the tam-tam. Kitajenko's tam-tam is a huge deep-toned roar which fits perfectly with his conception. Oh that he (or possibly the editor?) had held the orchestral pause a few seconds longer. From there to the end of the work the vengeance theme repeats with ever-heavier orchestration until two heavy chords in an unambivalent D major. Kitajenko stays true to his vision right through to these chords; hammered out with a thudding weight quite out of tempo to the preceding bars. Perhaps I have lived too long with the adrenalin-fuelled drama of Svetlanov to be able to wholly embrace this alternative view. Even so, it is certainly a fascinating challenging and totally compelling interpretation of this powerful symphony.

Too often the inclusion of Rachmaninov's early orchestral work The Rock feels like a filler. Not here. If I enjoyed but was ultimately unwilling to change my preferred version of the symphony, The Rock receives by some measure the most impressive performance of it I have heard. Kitajenko brings exactly the same virtues of weight, superbly flexible and responsive playing from the Gürzenich-Orchester, and a sense of epic drama. The dancing snowflakes of the solo flute in the opening is beautifully juxtaposed against the glowering low strings. Little details in the scoring include glittering harp and suspended cymbal which add to the orchestral colour. The balancing of the writing - which can verge on the thick and glutinous in other hands - is brilliantly achieved. At this time - it was his Op.7 - the debt to Tchaikovsky verges on plagiarism but as elsewhere Kitajenko turns this potential flaw into an advantage by embracing it for its maximum dramatic potential. Compared to other Rachmaninov there is a distinct lack of memorable themes. Those that do emerge are short-breathed and rely too heavily on a Tchaikovskian sequential repetition. That said, I have never ever been aware just how skilfully scored this work is. Kitajenko's pacing is perfection too so these repetitions draw the listener forward to the work's central climax [track 5 11:50] as a moment of cathartic release. The score can be followed on IMSLP again. It is fascinating to see, even in his first published orchestral work, how carefully Rachmaninov manipulates the pacing of the work and how expertly Kitajenko handles these potentially fussy tinkerings with the basic pulse to create the sense of a fluid continuum.

So even in a crowded marketplace, this disc has something rather special to offer for one work and an interesting and challenging take on the other. These are performances that underline for me that Rachmaninov was from his earliest works a confident and original composer for the orchestra with a real flair for drama. Certainly there is more than enough quality on show artistically, musically and technically to make me follow any other discs that might appear in this series with great interest.

Nick Barnard




 




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