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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 (1935-36) [43:26]
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Russia (Second overture on three Russian themes) (1864, rev 1907) [13:04]
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, 11 and 13 November 2014, Barbican, London DSD
LSO LIVE LSO0779 SACD [56:30]

After listening to Gergiev's performance of the Rachmaninov Symphony No. 3 on this disc several times and on different systems, I would have to agree with Dan Morgan in his review of this recording. Actually, I found even less to like about it than he did. I was really disappointed, because I know that Gergiev can turn out stunning versions of the Russian standards. Although I also know from my listening experience that he can be terribly inconsistent. Here he seems like he is either sleepwalking through the music or simply on autopilot.

I compared his account with a few others that I hold in high regard. There are also such classics as those by Previn (EMI), Ashkenazy (Decca) and Ormandy (CBS-Sony). For my comparison, though, I chose two more recent versions I really admire: Leonard Slatkin/Detroit Symphony (Naxos) and Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (EMI) along with Lan Shui's with the Singapore Symphony (BIS), which Dan Morgan praises. The differences in these recordings are not just a matter of tempo, but the timings tell at least part of the story.

For the first movement Slatkin takes 15:33 and Petrenko 15:07, while Gergiev slogs through at 17:45, more than two minutes longer. While Gergiev sounds really uninvolved, Lan Shui takes even longer at 18:11 and yet he is definitely engaged. I admire his tenacity, even if I find him too drawn out. Still his is a real performance in superb sound. For me, Slatkin and Petrenko are just right and bring a great deal of character and spirit to the music. Both of these could be a first choice, but I give the palm to Petrenko for a very fine performance in superior sound.

For the second movement there is not any significant differences in timing: Gergiev, 11:53; Petrenko, 11:56; Slatkin, 12:31; Shui, 12:26. Here what is most apparent is the lack of projection of Gergiev's soloists. From the horn solo to the later ones for flute and clarinet, Gergiev's just don't tell the way those do in the other recordings. This may be the fault of the recording, itself, though by no means the whole reason. Unlike some of the past LSO Live recordings in the Barbican, this one does not seem as dry or harsh. Unfortunately, it also is not as clear and sounds like a scrim was placed in front of the orchestra.

As with the second movement, tempo is not really at issue in the third either: Slatkin, 12:31; Petrenko, 13:37; Gergiev, 13:48; Shui, 14:32. It's true that Shui adds almost two minutes to Slatkin's timing and one could argue that he is either too deliberate or that Slatkin sounds rushed. Petrenko is exciting without undue haste and brings a welcome lightness to the music, while Gergiev is tepid and "prissy" and lacking the energy of the others. Gergiev finally comes to life late in the movement, but then spoils the movement by slamming on the brakes at the end. His ending just sounds vulgar to me.

The disc has the added attraction of the rarely heard symphonic poem Russia of Mily Balakirev. Programme annotator Andrew Huth describes the work well in its use of folk songs, with Balakirev taking "his themes through a spectrum of variations based on rhythm, harmony and colour". If only Gergiev could have better projected this spectrum. As recorded here the work is at best mildly interesting, though I suspect at least some of the fault lies with the composer.

For the reasons cited above, I would skip this disc and hope that Gergiev will record the Rachmaninov again perhaps with the Mariinsky Orchestra next time.

Leslie Wright

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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