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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
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2071 SACD [70:54]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-1907) [60:53]
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, 2008, Barbican, London, UK
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from
Pdf booklet included
LSO LIVE LSO0677 SACD [60:53]

As their recent recording of the Liszt piano concertos confirms BIS usually have good reasons for duplicating works they’ve recorded before (review). I certainly felt their first Rachmaninov Second Symphony - with Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony - could be improved upon (review); intriguingly Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic, well known for their Prokofiev and Stravinsky, have been selected for the repeat. Meanwhile, Valery Gergiev and the LSO need to atone for their wayward reading of the Third Symphony (review). In passing I referred to their recording of Op. 27; as the latter hasn’t been reviewed on these pages this head-to-head with Litton and the Bergen Phil serves a dual purpose.

Litton’s first movement – surging, full bodied – is very encouraging. The Bergen strings are splendid and there’s an amplitude here that suits the music well. Even at this juncture it’s clear the conductor has an uncluttered view of the score, its phrases and paragraphs. That contributes to an overall cogency that’s very impressive indeed. Not only that, there’s a humanity here, a generosity of spirit, that one doesn’t always find in performances of this symphony. Also. climaxes are thrilling, yet sensibly scaled; just the way they should be, but seldom are.

BIS haven’t always got the best out of this venue – the Grieg Hall – but Litton’s fine Prokofiev Fifth and Scythian Suite changed all that (review). Then again Take5’s Jens Braun is the engineer in both, so that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The animation and point of the Allegro molto are well caught, and there’s a pleasing depth to the soundstage as well. Litton and his committed players certainly make the most of the yearning theme that prefaces their pure, pulsing account of the Adagio; Christian Stene’s atmospheric clarinet solo is a delight, too.

Litton’s finale is forceful but never fierce, and he builds tension – and scales peaks – with a surefootedness that others can only aspire to. There are no dull moments in this performance, the closing pages of which are as propulsive and emphatic as it gets. All very different from the filler, Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake; both conductor and orchestra are in delicate, impressionistic mode, with a shimmering sound to match. The lower strings in particular play with a heightened sensitivity that’s just wonderful; as for Litton he’s alive to all the work’s complex colours, which he calibrates with great care. A lovely sign-off to a wholly recommendable release.

Gergiev’s reading of the E minor symphony, recorded live at the Barbican in 2008, seems less immediate than Litton’s; that said, he locks on to the work’s idiom in a way that his rival doesn’t. For instance Gergiev brings a brooding intensity to the first movement, a heartfelt, light-pierced inwardness, that speaks of a profound understanding of the score. The LSO have a real affinity for these symphonies too, as their classic EMI/Warner recordings with André Previn so amply demonstrate. Just listen to how Gergiev and his players phrase the recurrent theme that binds it all together, each one more radiant than the last. As for the conductor, too easily distracted in the Third, he’s now firm and very focused.

The Classic Sound recording isn’t as full-bodied as Take5’s, but it’s not without telling detail and impact. Indeed, in my review of Gergiev’s Third I confessed that his LSO Second ‘took this old curmudgeon’s breath away’. Hearing it again now my admiration is undimmed, for there’s a rapport between conductor and orchestra that makes for a spellbinding experience. Indeed, this performance has that elusive caught-on-the-wing quality that one gets with the finest concerts. Also, listening to Gergiev’s account of the Allegro molto I was struck by how much character and nuance he finds in the notes; as good as he is, Litton seems a trifle bland at this point.

Gergiev’s Adagio is no less beguiling; and while the clarinet solo is rather distant it’s so wistfully done. More important, there’s a truly organic quality to the music-making here; perhaps the best way to describe it is that Litton has the letter of the score, Gergiev its spirit. Pulse and phrasing are always clear and there are no redundant gestures. There's little sign of Gergiev’s unscripted vocals and his finale is electrifying; not only that, the Brits add a suppleness and bounce to Rachmaninov’s rhythms that the Norwegians can’t quite emulate. That said, the latter are simply spectacular in Rachmaninov’s stomping, percussion-drenched perorations.

Musically and politically controversial he may be, but when he’s at his best – as here – Gergiev is almost unbeatable. Litton and his Bergen band are memorable too – they certainly deliver a more probing performance of this symphony than Lan Shui and the SSO – but it's Gergiev and the LSO who deserve the palm.

Two top-notch accounts of a great symphony, very well recorded; however, there can only be one winner …

Dan Morgan



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