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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 (1936) [43:26]
Mili BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Russia – Symphonic poem (1863-1864, rev. 1884) [13:04]
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. live, November 2014, Barbican, London
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from Hyperion
Pdf booklet included
LSO LIVE LSO0779 SACD [56:30]

Maestro Gergiev is as busy as ever, as the steady flow of recordings from London and St Petersburg will testify. I make no secret of my ambivalence about his performances though, which tend to veer between the wrongheaded and the remarkable. His Mariinsky Shostakovich piano concertos with Denis Matsuev (review) and his Mussorgsky Pictures (review) belong in the first category, but his Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 with Leonidas Kavakos sits firmly in the second (review). As for Gergiev’s LSO Live recordings his Mahler cycle is variable – perverse, even – and his recent Brahms and Berlioz recordings have had mixed reviews.

Don’t lose heart though, for I’ve heard the first instalment in this Rachmaninov series – Symphony No. 2 – and it took this old curmudgeon’s breath away (LSO0677). That performance has passion and amplitude aplenty, and the LSO, whose EMI recording with André Previn is a bona fide classic, play their hearts out. Indeed, I’ve always felt British orchestras have a special way with these symphonies, a potent combination of mailed fist and velvet glove, perhaps. As for the sound in Gergiev’s LSO Rach 2 it’s unusually enticing and tactile for the Barbican. All of which augurs very well for this follow-up; Balakirev’s symphonic poem Russia is the tasty filler.

Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony has fared well on record; among the stand-out versions must be EMI/Previn (the LSO again), Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Concertgebouw (Decca), Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Phil (Chandos) and, in recent years, Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony on BIS (review). I revisited the latter in preparation for this review and I found it even more satisfying than I did the first time; it's a heady cocktail of heartfelt lyricism and raw power, not to mention crisp ensemble and a fine sense of the work’s architecture.

Coming back to Gergiev it’s all too easy to castigate him for being rushed or routine, but such epithets don’t apply to the first movement of this Rach 3. Happily there’s something of the inner glow and outer shape that so impressed me in his Second Symphony. That initial outburst, which seems to grow out of nowhere, is powerful but perfectly proportioned, and thereafter the LSO strings yearn with the best of them. Gergiev may seem a tad deliberate after Lan Shui, but thus far there’s a wonderfully organic quality to the Russian’s reading that I like very much indeed.

With this Lento there’s time to stand and stare, to imbibe all this score has to offer. That said, I much prefer the airier, more analytical sound of Gergiev's Rach 2, although the unique character of this versatile band still shines through here. I suppose one could argue that Gergiev is a tad reticent in this opener; however, that's nothing compared with the trance-like Adagio that follows. This sudden, almost narcissistic, cosseting of the music is one of Gergiev’s most irksome traits. By contrast Lan Shui isn’t so easily distracted; indeed, he and his orchestra balance unalloyed loveliness with a firm and necessary sense of purpose.

Alas, Gergiev has now lost focus, and his finale slips by with little or nothing of the personality and drive that make his LSO Second so very special. Once again Lan Shui’s is the more focused and persuasively shaped reading, its peaks and perorations positively leaping from the page. Despite a very promising start Gergiev just seems too mannered in much of this Third. As presented here Balakirev’s Russia has its moments, but otherwise the performance lacks conviction. There are parts of Gergiev’s Mariinsky Pictures in which that same air of detachment prevails; trouble is, it can so easily be construed as a lack of interest.

After a splendid Second Gergiev disappoints with a dreary Third; the dry, rather close sound is a turn-off too.

Dan Morgan



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