Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-1907) [63:15]
Anatoly LIADOV (1855-1914)
The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62 (1909) [6:45]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. 2014/15, Grieg Hall, Bergen, Norway
BIS BIS-2071 SACD [70:54]

This release has already come in for praise from Dan Morgan. The recording itself was also much admired recently in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio (see report). A couple of years ago I was very taken with an earlier Litton recording of Rachmaninov: the excellent account of the Symphonic Dances, also set down in Bergen (review). Consequently, I was delighted to receive this latest disc to appraise.

There’s a telling comment in Andrew Huth’s very valuable booklet notes. He refers to Rachmaninov’s “approach to long-range construction”. This is an expansive symphony, conceived on a very broad scale and a conductor needs to have the confidence to allow the music to unfold naturally, shaping its ebb and flow. Early on it’s evident that Andrew Litton has this confidence for the Introduction is unhurried and already shows the necessary flexible approach to phrasing. The Bergen Philharmonic sounds splendid; their playing glows. It helps, of course, that the BIS recording is deep and rich, yet detailed, and that the bass end of the orchestral spectrum is presented with such satisfying firmness.

When Litton reaches the Allegro moderato (4:58) he seems to me to pace it ideally, in such a way that allows the spirit of the music full rein. The flexibility of tempo that was in evidence during the opening pages continues. Happily, the exposition repeat is taken; that makes for a very long first movement (23:07 in this performance) but it’s the right thing to do and Litton’s decision is completely vindicated. The development is tremendously involving in Litton’s hands; there’s often great power and energy in the performance. The music-making is exciting, though never in a superficial way. Where the scoring calls for it Litton’s orchestra plays with very pleasing tonal weight but elsewhere their individual and collective delicacy is just as admirable.

The opening of the second movement has tremendous vitality and that’s the case whenever this material is revisited. The yearning, sweeping string melody (at 1:20), replete with portamento, is sung with no little ardour and the rise and fall of the phrasing is completely idiomatic. When the fugal string passage is reached (3:54), the incisiveness of the Bergen players compels attention. There’s lots of dash in this performance.

The Bergen clarinettist, Christian Stene, invests the memorable solo in the Adagio with wistful poetry. Memories of Jack Brymer (on the Previn recording) may not be banished entirely but Stene is very eloquent. Litton and his orchestra provide romantic ardour a-plenty in this movement and yet again I thought Litton’s pacing and control were completely convincing. I love the way the big, full-blooded climax is thrust home (7:30) but just as impressive is the way the tension is built up in the pages that lead up to the climax.

The finale bursts out jubilantly. Andrew Huth is spot on in identifying “a sense of liberation” in this movement though I take mild issue with his reference to the “constricted character of so many previous themes.” I know what he means: Rachmaninov does rely on sequences quite a lot and his themes don’t always range that widely but “constricted” seems a little unfair to me. Nonetheless, for the most part in the finale there’s a genuinely up-beat tone to the music and the brilliance of Litton’s reading emphasises that; he brings the symphony home in splendid style.

While admiring Litton’s performance greatly Dan Morgan felt that Valery Gergiev’s LSO Live recording had the edge over it. I’ve not heard that performance but I found much to admire in Gergiev’s earlier, 1999 version with the Kirov Opera Orchestra (review). However, I think this Litton account is even better, not least because he’s more expansive than Gergiev in the Adagio, where the Bergen clarinettist sings more persuasively than does his Kirov rival. Sonically the BIS recording trumps the sound afforded to Gergiev in 1999. My long-term “leader in the clubhouse” has been André Previn’s 1973 LSO performance. (review). However, though Previn unfolds the symphony in a masterly fashion he omits the first movement exposition repeat, which I regret. Furthermore, though the EMI sound is still more than acceptable it can’t match BIS’s SACD recording, which is superb, even by their impressive standards. In particular the EMI recording puts something of an edge onto the sound of the LSO violins. On both artistic and sonic grounds Litton’s reading of the symphony must now be counted as one of the market leaders.

The disc is completed by a performance of Liadov’s miniature, The Enchanted Lake. The music is atmospherically done. However, I question slightly the wisdom of placing Liadov’s delicate little piece after Rachmaninov’s mighty symphony, which rather dwarves it. A better solution, I think would have been to let the Liadov act as the preface to the symphony.

John Quinn

Previous review: Dan Morgan
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