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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No.3 in A minor Op.44 (1935) [41:53]
Symphonic Dances Op.45 (1940) [38:46]
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Dmitrij Kitajenko
rec. Studio Stolberger Straß, Cologne, Germany, 13-15 February 2012 (Symphony), 13-17 May 2013 (Symphonic Dances)

This third disc of Rachmaninov from Dmitrij Kitajenko and the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln completes their survey of the Symphonies (Symphony 1; Symphony 2). However, there is a handful of the orchestral works - and works for chorus and orchestra - yet to be recorded, and such is the quality on display here that I hope these works will follow.

The strengths and virtues of the current disc replicate those of the earlier volumes exactly. Kitajenko is an unfussy interpreter not prone to excesses of tempo or emotion in these works. If I had to characterise the performance style at all it would be broad and powerful. In this he is backed to the hilt by the superb Gürzenich-Orchester with excellent engineering to boot. All three of the discs seemed to have been recorded in a period from January to October 2013 with the exception of the Third Symphony given here which was put 'in the can' nearly a full year earlier in February 2012. Interesting therefore to realise that the consistency of Kitajenko' s approach to the symphonies starts with the latest work - in compositional date terms. There are many recordings these days of all of Rachmaninov's music so performances need to have something different to offer just to enter the reckoning. By removing the extremes, Kitajenko removes some of the sense of impetuosity and volatility that others find in this work. Of the three symphonies the third is the trickiest to bring off interpretatively. The First Symphony is the most direct, the most theatrical, the Second a massive sprawling stream of melody whereas the Third can sound sectionalised and bitty. Kitajenko’s single greatest achievement is just how symphonic he makes the work sound. In a masterly feat of composition Rachmaninov derives most of the melodic material in the work from the tiny rocking motif that appears in the very opening bars. I like the way Kitajenko presents this in a very bare, etiolated fashion - about as unpromising as it could be - which allows the eruption of the full orchestra in the fifth bar to register with the impact the composer must have wanted without over-emphasising the dynamic indication of just f. As with his versions of the other symphonies Kitajenko is good at taking Rachmaninov's nudging of tempi at face value - they are often a matter of degree more than the great Romantic swoons that other performances indulge in. A case in point is the big tune of the first movement - introduced by the cellos at figure 5. Yes Rachmaninov does indicate "tempo rubato" - the tempo to be played with flexibility/freedom - but the only marked 'hold' in the melody's flow is at the end of the second bar. Kitajenko nudges this without disrupting the flow. As ever he is helped hugely by the warmth and sonority of the Cologne players.

There is a paradox at the centre of this work. It is as if Rachmaninov is deliberately being anti-modern; I am not sure I can think of another major symphony written as late as this one that uses a very traditional exposition repeat in the first movement. The finale features a fugal passage and elsewhere Rachmaninov stays true to the lush tonal flow of melody that marked out so many of his works. Yet at the same time he experiments with orchestration, harmony and form in a way - for him - quite different to any of his previous works. As mentioned Kitajenko's strength is to bind the work together emphasising its true symphonic stature. This comes at the price of some sheer emotional heft or visceral excitement that other performances achieve. In the middle movement, Rachmaninov experiments with a two movements in one form with an extended scherzo section (Allegro vivace) flanked by two adagio 'panels' with material yet again derived from the opening cell. Kitajenko's scherzo is beautifully 'placed' but by being a good fifteen or so beats per minute under the score's marking of crochet/quarter note = 160 it lacks the quicksilver brilliance that I think Rachmaninov sought. Ashkenazy in his well-known Decca/Concertgebouw recording pushes a good fifteen beats or so above that marking but his Dutch orchestra play with extraordinary brilliance. Important to note though that Kitajenko is in good company; Ormandy in Philadelphia - the orchestra who premiered the work but with Stokowski - is also significantly off the printed pace. Svetlanov is another who favours a mercurial speed as does Weller with the LPO on Decca although Weller's account feels driven rather than brilliant.

The opening of the third and final movement from Kitajenko again features a middle-ground tempo which gives the music a ceremonial rather than festive feeling. This is very consistent with his approach to the entire symphony - I would have been surprised if he had made a different choice - again he is a good 12 bpm off the marked crochet = 130 indication. If I was allowed only a single version of this work I would opt for one that stuck closer to the score's tempo indications but as with the other discs in this series I find Kitajenko's individual approach very effective. Indeed the closing pages see him cranking up the tempo and energy very excitingly. Right up to the last two bars where he indulges in an interpretative foible that I really dislike - huge brakes go on and literally these two bars are played at nearly half the tempo of the preceding music. There is no indication in the score at all for this. Of the other versions I know; Svetlanov in both his recordings for Melodiya and the 1993 re-make does this (see also) - making me think it was a Russian/Soviet performance tradition - but then de Waart in Rotterdam on Philips does the same. None of them make it work and it is very nearly a deal-breaker. My sense is that this music needs to blaze through to the very last double bar in some act of creative cocking-a-snook at musical modernism circa 1935.

The coupling of Rachmaninov's final orchestral work - the Symphonic Dances is both apt and generous. Particularly so here since it gives the disc a running time of over eighty minutes. By now Kitajenko's preference for broad tempi and rich sonorities should come as no surprise. Again, this performance would not be my preferred single version but there are insights provided by both the interpretation and the quality of the engineering and playing that are of real interest. I miss the dynamism Svetlanov brings to the work's opening with his contra-bassoon player providing a massive foundation on which to build the work. Other performances find more sensuality in the saxophone solo too. Kitajenko comes into his own with a daringly languorous central dance - he is well over a minute longer than Previn (EMI Classics), Litton, Ashkenazy and Jansons. Only Svetlanov in his digital re-make is slower but that version lacks the sheer tonal allure of this new version. Listening to these two final dances it did strike me that taking their subtitles into account - "Evening" and "Midnight" - it would be possible to hear these Kitajenko performances as dreams; the former all perfumed sensuality and the latter a feverish nightmare - the Dies Irae stalking the music in an implacable manner. At the beginning of the finale Kitajenko opts for orchestral bells rather than tubular bells and he allows them to clang through the texture like some fearful tocsin. No pacing worries or unscripted pull-backs here. This is a powerful and convincing performance throughout. I would have liked the brass to crown the final most explicit statement of the Dies Irae more tellingly but this is a strongly characterised and executed interpretation. Whether to allow the final tam-tam to ring or not?; Kitajenko has a massive deep-toned gong that rings on for a full twenty seconds.

This disc is presented in Oehms' typically minimalist manner - an unfussy liner in German and English - but extremely well engineered. So, a strongly individual, superbly played conclusion to this cycle of Rachmaninov Symphonies. Certainly worth hearing.

Nick Barnard



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