Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 1 in D minor (1895) [45.43]
Dortmund Philharmonic/Gabriel Feltz
rec. Konzerthaus, Dortmund, 23-24 February 2016
DREYER GAIDO 21100 SACD [45.43]

Perhaps Alexander Glazunov and Cesar Cui would be surprised to discover that, to a degree, they are remembered for a particularly antipathetic, alcohol addled performance of a new symphony and a viciously memorable review of it. The story of the first performance of Sergei Rachmaninov's D minor symphony and the consequences of it has been so often repeated in countless record and CD sleeve notes that I do not need to repeat it here; suffice it to say that its emotional and psychological impact on the young man was profound and may have influenced his subsequent musical development.

When I first came across this work in 1971 The Gramophone catalogue listed only one recording; that by The Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy and alas, I could not afford to buy it. Now however, it is probably an indication of just how much Rachmaninov's reputation as a composer has risen in the last forty five years that there are sixteen different recordings of this symphony in my CD collection, and were I so inclined I could add many more.

There are two extremes of interpretive stance afforded to this work; the coolly objective type as exemplified by the recent recording by Kitaenko at the helm of the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln (Oehms Classics OC440), and the no holds barred type, reaching out to every extreme of emotional pull, as set down by Yevgeny Svetlanov in his two Russian recordings.

The symphony is a young man's work - Rachmaninov was just twenty-two when he completed it and it is full of emotional extremes. If a conductor tries to re-interpret it from a middle-aged, rationalist standpoint, the risk is run of partially neutralising the piece and diluting its impact. Kitaenko does just this and succeeds in making the work boring, despite the superb recording and fine orchestral playing.

I make no secret of my preference for the Svetlanov school. Technically, Svetlanov’s first recording ​made by Melodiya in 1966 (excellently remastered on Regis RRC 1247) is a typical Soviet effort of the period, harsh, upfront and barely able to cope with the intense climaxes he conjures up. However, the performance is so overwhelming in its impact that I can easily forgive the technical shortcomings or the engineering (which is not something I often do).

Its successor from 1992, part of a set of his symphonies, has much better sound and the orchestra still sports the authentically raucous brass, but Svetlanov has become a little more mannered in his interpretation. Even so, the lead up to the final coda is tremendously exciting and the coda itself is crushing in its doom-laden impact - no gentle stroking of the tam-tam here and this, like its predecessor, is a performance demonstrating totally committed music making! (Warner Music France 5101 12238-2).

All other performances fall somewhere in between these two outer limits and the one reviewed here sits pretty much in the middle. In a rebuttal of opinions still held in Germany that Rachmaninov composed ‘romantic salon music’, the conductor Gabriel Feltz is of the opinion that it is “a wild animalistic symphony” and interestingly, the CD booklet informs us that even today only a very small part of his complete oeuvre is known in Germany. This booklet is a model of its kind, giving a history of the work’s composition, subsequent revision, performance and the shattering effect upon the young composer. It also gives a short analysis of each movement.

The Dortmund Philharmonic Orchestra play splendidly in their new concert hall which appears to possess good acoustics, giving the SACD recording a fine, natural bloom. The live recording is excellent with little or no audience noise until the final, rather hesitant applause.

Feltz gives a straightforward reading of the first movement, with the important motto theme which permeates the entire symphony given due presence, but at one point I wondered whether the recording engineers had over-adjusted the balance, because as the movement enters quieter sections, the orchestra achieves quite an extreme pianissimo.

The second movement, a Scherzo, is beautifully done, with the conductor saying that its shimmering style reminds him of Mendelssohn. The third movement, a larghetto, does not present the listener with the heart-on-sleeve emotional outpouring of the slow movement in the second symphony, instead we get lyrical sections interrupted by orchestral rumblings of the motto theme. Unlike Svetlanov in his earlier recording, Feltz does not attempt to raise the emotional temperature, but the movement comes off well, with the composer’s melodic genius allowed to flower.

In many ways, any performance of the last movement can make or break the whole interpretation and Feltz starts out with a spirited rendition of the opening memorably impactive martial passage. The movement continues in a straightforward interpretation with the conductor accelerating the orchestra in an exciting manner as the music approaches the coda. The pause which immediately precedes it is filled, in this recording, by an enormously reverberant, prolonged stroke on the gong. The coda itself is a darkly ominous affair, presented by the motto in the lower reaches of the orchestra. Disappointingly, the gong (or tam-tam) which repeatedly overlays the darker orchestral elements in these last few seconds is barely audible – such a shame, because when well to the forefront of the sound picture it can have a stunning effect.

I am glad to say that there are many excellent recordings of this symphony available, and it is not necessary to pay full price to be able to hear it in exciting readings. This fact makes the Dortmund Philharmonic’s disc difficult to recommend, because whilst the performance, recording and presentation are fine, the disc gives short measure at just under 46 minutes playing time; there is no coupling.

Jim Westhead

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