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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No.1 in d minor, Op.13 (1895) [41:46]
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Tamara: Symphonic Poem [19:36]
London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. Barbican, London, 19 February 2015. DDD/DSD
LSO LIVE LSO0784 SACD [61:22]
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk.

Previous releases in this series have been disappointing: Leslie Wright – review – liked the Third Symphony even less than Dan Morgan – review – yet others described the live performance as ‘searing’. Thus it was that although I have seen the new recording of the First receive high praise, I approached with trepidation: it wouldn’t by any means be the first LSO/Gergiev recording to leave me cold.

I liked Gergiev’s powerful but idiosyncratic recording of the Second Symphony, though with some reservations and not as my first choice – Download Roundup August 2010 and Download News 2015/9. Listening again to the 24-bit download from Hyperion did little to change my opinion.

The première of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony was a disaster, with a probably drunken Glazunov creating havoc on the podium. The resulting nervous breakdown meant that Rachmaninov composed nothing of note until the Second Piano Concerto, dedicated to the analyst who had treated him. The work has, nevertheless, been much recorded in recent years, with 39 versions to its credit.

One of the earliest, featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy, remains available as a 2-CD set of all three symphonies plus Vocalise, download only. I believe that was the recording from which the BBC took the opening of the finale many years ago to introduce a topical news programme and, on a CBS LP, it was my introduction to the work. For some strange reason it’s called ‘highlights’; there may be some small cuts but it is the whole deal – review by Rob Barnett of CD set. As you would expect from Ormandy it remains a powerful account, well worth considering alongside Vasily Petrenko with the RLPO (Warner: Recording of the Month – review) and Gianandrea Noseda with the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos – review: Download News 2012/24).

I’m sorry to have to report that once again Valery Gergiev seems to be trying too hard to play down a reputation for over-the-top performances. Right from the first movement there’s a sense that he is holding back, a feelling which persists until the blazing outburst at the start of the finale and that could hardly fail to come off. Of course it’s a patchy work but listen to Noseda and right from the start the music comes more to life. Moreover he holds my attention through the less assured passages. The sound, too, is livelier, even in the 16-bit wma download which I originally made from theclassicalshop.net, now subsumed into chandos.net and, unfortunately, currently unavailable to me, so I couldn’t get access to their 24-bit download.

It is, however, available and sounds even better in 24-bit from eclassical.com, with pdf booklet. That comes with a very fine version of Isle of the Dead and Paul Lamm’s edition of the discarded Youth Symphony and remains my recommendation for a modern recording of both major works, with an interesting appendix thrown in, a work which I could wish Rachmaninov had persevered with.

By comparison with Noseda the first movement outstays its welcome a little from Gergiev, though Ormandy makes a similar timing to Gergiev, around 13.30 overall, work well. By comparison with Ormandy and Noseda, who each take around nine minutes, Gergiev’s second movement at 7.03 sounds a little hurried and uninvolved. After the powerful opening the finale tends to tail off a little in any performance but Ormandy and Noseda maintain the interest better than Gergiev.

Most LSO Live recordings which have come my way have needed a volume boost, often a considerable boost, and this is no exception. Even so, however, the recording doesn’t have the punch which Chandos give to Noseda, but the BBC Studios in Manchester are a much more amenable recording base than the Barbican.

I played the Gergiev finale again, with a considerable volume boost, just to make sure that it really doesn’t have quite the oomph of the other recordings that I’ve mentioned. Admittedly it does sound livelier at an even higher volume than I had been using, but it’s still aurally and musically a shade or two less exciting than Noseda or Ormandy. Though I don’t always think ‘Building a Library’ comparisons helpful, I also listened to and much admired Mikhail Pletnev with the Russian National Orchestra (DG 4630752, recorded in 2000: also in budget-price 4-CD box set 4779505). On the single CD the coupling is an account of Isle of the Dead to rival Noseda’s.

If I had been at the LSO concert I might well have gone home satisfied. It may also well be that those who have enjoyed earlier releases in this series will find Gergiev’s Rachmaninov more amenable than I do, especially as one reviewer has already declared this new recording to be ‘taut and gripping’. I recommend that you try to hear it for yourself. Subscribers to Naxos Music Library and Qobuz can compare it with Ormandy, Pletnev, Petrenko and Noseda. Subscribers to classicsonline.com can compare Gergiev with Ormandy and Noseda.

Brian Wilson






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