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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No.1 in D minor Op.13 (1895/6) [43:23]
Philharmonia Orchestra/ Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. live,The Royal Festival Hall, London, 17 November 2016

The Philharmonia and Vladimir Ashkenazy have a long and fruitful recording relationship as orchestra and conductor. It was with this orchestra that Ashkenazy made the bulk of his earliest discs from the podium for Decca, back in the late 1970's and early 1980's. By the time Ashkenazy recorded (nearly) all of Rachmaninov’s orchestral works he was in Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw and those performances still sound very fine indeed today.

So while it is a cause for celebration to mark a creative relationship running to nearly 40 years does Ashkenazy in 2017 having anything particularly new to say that he did not say in 1980-odd? In the interim, Ashkenazy has already contributed a 2nd set - this of all the orchestral music on Exton with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and in SACD sound to boot. Apparently this disc is the first in a new cycle of the Rachmaninov symphonies from this team but I think it rather brave of Signum to issue it in a crowded and competitive market not only the third version by the same conductor but also only a disc in good but not demonstration (let alone SACD) sound with no coupling. So this is a sub 45 minute disc with no real USP. As a performance in concert this would be very good and wholly enjoyable but the changes there are between Ashkenazy Mk.1 and Mk.3 do not justify an additional purchase let alone paying potentially full price for the privilege. Especially since 2nd hand copies of all three symphonies played by the Concertgebouw can be picked up online for under 3.00 plus p&p.

The Signum engineers actually do a very good job to ‘humanise’ the less than generous acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall and the Philharmonia play with skill and personality. My main problem is that the differences between Ashkenazy's 1st and 3rd versions all tend to broadening the tempi and feel of the latter at the cost of bite and brio. The 2nd movement Allegro animato is over a minute slower with the animato marking minimised at best. Likewise the Larghetto now has a languid quality with the urgent climaxes smoothed away. Now, I would not say that Ashkenazy Mk.1 is my absolute favourite version of this remarkable student work but his natural predilection back then for pressed tempi and whipped-up climaxes suited the work more. This is after all the work of a young and precocious man. On the verge of graduating from the Moscow conservatoire he was already one of the finest pianists ever to have come from that institution and had written a series of dynamic and confident works as a composer. The story of the disaster that was this symphony's premiere has to be one of the great ‘sliding door’ moments in music. What might have been for Rachmaninov the composer, if the work had been triumphantly received?

Perhaps most disappointing of all is the skilled but fairly routine traversal of the finale. For all the technical flaws musical analysts will show exist this is - or should be - a sweeping and thrilling ride into the abyss. I am not sure this has ever been captured better than in the famous Svetlanov/USSR SO recording. In this movement Ashkenazy is actually a dozen or so seconds faster than he was in Amsterdam but there is little or no sense of the impending ‘vengeance is mine’ apocalypse. Most disappointing is the rumpty-tumpty tempo of the famous opening fanfare sequence, with the trumpets seemingly balanced behind the accompanying string chords. In fact Ashkenazy is faster than most of the ‘standard’ versions. Of the ones I have to hand the very fine live performance from the unexpected team of Zoltan Kocsis and the Hungarian PO is quicker still. Possibly too fast, in fact, but this comes across as a superbly driven version. Ashkenazy does whip up some energy in the climax around 10:15 which is crowned by a rather disappointing tam-tam. Then he pushes through the extended coda in an oddly perfunctory “let's get this over” manner right from the point that the orchestra re-enters before the resonating tam-tam has anything like died away. For those who are curious about such matters; Ashkenazy seems to use the same amount of percussion as he did with the Concertgebouw. That is to say by no means all that exists in the original parts. Over the years conductors have dipped into this and chosen pretty much what they want at will. I do enjoy versions which include more percussion than here but it has to be said that the quality of any interpretation should always be more important than the presence - or not - of occasional percussion.

For a live recording, as mentioned, the Signum team do a good job taming the venue and the orchestra come across as playing with great skill. Occasional inequalities in the balance prevent this from being absolutely top-drawer technically. There is almost no audience noise and no applause is retained. Clearly this disc is effectively a Philharmonia production from their owning of the performing/recording rights listed in the liner to the fact that information about the orchestra takes up 5 pages of the liner compared to 2 each for the music and the conductor. That being the case, admirers of this fine orchestra will want to add this to their collection. But it would be quite wrong for a reviewer not to suggest that better performances in every respect; value, interpretative and sound exist elsewhere. This is a performance that should have stayed in the concert hall.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Dan Morgan (download)



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