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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 [44:36]
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 [55:23]
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 [38:11]
The Isle of the Dead Op. 29 [21:30]
The Rock Op. 7 [15:44]
Symphonic Dances Op. 45 [34:56]
Caprice Bohémien Op. 12 16:06]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) [33:04]
Sergie PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 (excerpts) [45:11]
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra (dances, caprice)/Edo de Waart
rec. 1972 (Dances, Caprice), 1973 (Prokofiev), 1975 (Mussorgsky), 1976 (Rachmaninov Symphonies 1 and 3), 1977 (The Rock), 1978 (Rachmaninov Symphony No.2, 1980 (The Isle of the Dead)
ELOQUENCE 4828981 [4 CDs: 305:25]

This generous 4-CD collection of Russian music brings together six LPs that Edo de Waart recorded for Philips between 1972 and 1980. This year the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra is celebrating its 100th anniversary and these recordings recall the heyday of the orchestra in the 1970s.

De Waart’s intensely practical knowledge of the orchestra was formed by experience as an orchestral oboist, taught by the principal oboe of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the days of Willem Mengelberg, nurtured by seeing Eduard van Beinum in action and further encouraged by Bernard Haitink. Before embarking on his Rachmaninov series he confessed to an initial reluctance to engage with the idiom of the composer. “Then I conducted the [Symphonic Dances] in Rotterdam several times, and suddenly I became very fond of it. I think his music grows on you as you get rid of the ‘honey and roses’ view of him that you first learn. You must play him as strongly as the Russians used to do.’ He recorded the Symphonic Dances with the London Philharmonic in 1972 and in the following year he made his debut LP in Rotterdam with a personal, LP-length selection of excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. There followed in December 1974 the Mussorgsky Pictures and the then well-regarded accounts of the Rachmaninov symphonies between 1976 and 1978. De Waart’s eleven years in Rotterdam coincided with a flourishing era for the orchestra which had begun with the opening of De Doelen – a concert hall of architectural significance – in 1966.

The Rachmaninov recordings established Edo de Waart’s reputation and they still stand up very well to this day. The first symphony is the best of the cycle with playing of an international class throughout. There is a fine depth of tone coupled with excellent articulation and ensemble. The opening movement is treated very lyrically and the scherzo has real sparkle. The only slight disappointment is the opening of the finale (famously used for the TV programme Panorama) which is really limp compared to Ormandy’s version on CBS. The second symphony doesn’t have the melancholic passion of Previn or the Russian excitement of Ashkenazy but it is enjoyable in its own way. De Waart refuses to wallow and linger and he favours fast tempi throughout. The orchestral playing is first rate. The slow movement is direct, straightforward and beautifully done but maybe this is where just a little extra sentimentality can add another dimension to the music. Some more breadth and elasticity to the phrasing wouldn’t have gone amiss. The third symphony shares the same qualities as the first and second – an attractive corporate orchestral sound where taste and refinement are paramount. The major snag is that the first movement repeat is omitted and there are some passages that are just too comfortable and lacking in fire. The remaining Rachmaninov couplings include a marvellous Symphonic Dances played with real gusto and virtuosity by the London Philharmonic.

Strangely, whereas de Waart favours fast tempi in the Rachmaninov he takes the opposite view in the Mussorgsky. His vision is very relaxed, focusing his attention on the quiet, reflective movements. That doesn’t mean that the faster passages are lacking in spirit but it has to be said that some extra bite could have improved the performance. Having said that, the whole work is full of atmosphere in the conductor’s hands and the playing, yet again, is stunning. ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ is very spectacular.

The Prokofiev puts the icing on the cake. The Rotterdam players put in a superb performance of Romeo and Juliet and reach new heights. It’s a shame that we don’t get the two complete suites. Instead, what we have is 11 excerpts chosen by the conductor. With a playing time of 49 minutes this would have been the norm in the era of the LP. The highlights are ‘Montagues and Capulets’, ‘Death of Tybalt’ and the concluding ‘Romeo and Juliet’s tomb’. This is a welcome bonus and a fitting finale to a rather attractive programme of Russian music.

The Philips engineers have captured the fine acoustic of the de Doelen hall to great effect and give the orchestra a natural but spectacular balance with depth, warmth and transparency. This is a thoroughly enjoyable set and also a real bargain.

John Whitmore


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