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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons
rec. live 28-29 & 31 January 2010, Concertgebouw Amsterdam
DDD + DSD, reviewed in surround
RCO LIVE RCO16004 SACD [55:49]

Those familiar with Mariss Jansons’ nip-and-tuck version of this symphony should find no surprises here, and those unfamiliar with it may neither notice nor care. While it’s not the grievously cut version of long ago, there are changes, some apparently ‘traditional’, while others may be Jansons’ own. I’ll elaborate as I proceed, but it’s intriguing that some conductors still depart from the view that this symphony is best played as it is written. So in this case, does the end justify the means?

The movement timings suggest that if Jansons is following the full score, this live 2010 Concertgebouw performance will be on the swifter side, in line with more recent practice. Fond as I am of the landmark un-cut 1973 André Previn recording which drew me into this work, it is a bit of a swoon-fest, and I’ve been otherwise persuaded that the work loses none of its gorgeousness when played with greater symphonic rigour. That includes more recent interpreters such as Vladimir Ashkenazy and Ivan Fischer, not to mention Jansons’ own readings with the St Petersburg Philharmonic and Philharmonia orchestras. In character with his earlier recordings, Jansons’ approach to the opening Allegro moderato is quite light and flowing which he personalises, not by wallowing, but with deft rubato and dynamic variations. Inner voices, notably woodwind, register perhaps better than ever. On this occasion, Jansons’ pacing is not greatly faster than the pack, but his vision is clearly beyond the winding contours of this longest movement. He does however add a tympani stroke at its conclusion, fortifying the unison E on cellos and basses. Known more traditionally as a Russian tweak, it’s also used by the likes of Eugene Ormandy and Walter Weller in their recordings. Jansons’ is relatively discreet, with all instruments still audible - nothing like the almighty, obliterating thwack in the Gennadi Rozhdestvensky/LSO recording. The latter, by the way, I regard less highly than others do, musically and sonically. Saccharine as Previn’s may be, at least he’s without the Mantovani strings inhabiting Rozhdestvensky’s.

The following Allegro Molto movement is delivered by Jansons in no-nonsense style; not underplayed certainly, but more as an interlude and emotional breather within the bigger symphonic picture. The Adagio then starts to weave its spell, subliminally telling us Jansons is where he wants to be. With the arrival of the big tune at the climax of this movement - reinforced by unscripted, Scriabin-like trumpet - it seems, if I read Jansons correctly, we’ve reached the work’s epicentre. It’s the moment that most focussed my attention and, on subsequent hearings, snapped my head around – the Concertgebouw’s playing at its most searingly radiant. It perhaps also explains Jansons’ dispatch of the Adagio vivace finale, which like the second movement comes more as a release and celebration than a focal point of the symphonic argument. Here the interventions are most telling; for example, a cymbal crash when the second theme returns, and a shortened reappearance of the movement's opening material, an area where Kurt Sanderling also has form. While Jansons takes this movement at a fair lick, the fact that barely twelve minutes pass compared with thirteen or more for other complete versions suggests the severity of these cuts; the 13:17 mentioned in the timings, by the way, includes applause. If none the wiser, though, Jansons’ performance does add up, and if you’re willing to forgive him anyway, it’s a finely conceived view of this symphony, played by a great orchestra.

A selling point for those already in the Jansons camp may be the release of this live performance as a multi-channel SACD. In stereo, the sound is of good broadcast quality, with some distancing between the listener and the Concertgebouw’s front desks, and the rest of the orchestra receding back into the hall. While internal balance is generally excellent, the sound is at best moderately involving. In surround, bringing up the hall ambience on the rear channels draws the front desks further into the listening area and gives the orchestral image greater depth, although the brass, percussion and some of the woodwind sound even further trapped at the rear. Nevertheless, it’s a more ‘being there’ experience. For comparison, I tried Ivan Fischer’s SACD on Channel Classics with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which by the way ticks all the boxes for ‘accepted’ contemporary performance of this symphony. A studio recording, the surround sound for Fischer is more impressive and engaging, without overplaying the spatial effects. There’s more to it than that, though: as good as Fischer’s sound is, I was unfazed by interrupting his performance, whereas Jansons compelled me to listen on.

It’s unlikely that anyone who discovers and embraces Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony will limit their collection to a single performance. So the question with Jansons’ new recording is not so much whether it’s the best or ‘the one’ - to which I would categorically answer ‘no’ - but whether it’s a good place to start, or a worthwhile addition, to which I would give a qualified ‘yes’. Putting all others aside and considering Jansons alone, his existing, well regarded, recordings are not replaced, and the surround sound offered by this new one is hardly commendable on its own. For some the presence of applause may also rule it out. On the other hand, I suspect no-one will particularly care, despite its short playing time, that this RCO Live disc has no filler. It’s all about the symphony, really.

Des Hutchinson



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