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 …
Founding Editor Rob Barnett Senior Editor
John Quinn Seen & Heard Editor Emeritus Bill Kenny Editor in Chief
Vacant MusicWeb Webmaster
David Barker MusicWeb Founder Len Mullenger