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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op.27 (1908) [58:42]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. 2015, Royal Festival Hall, London

It’s clear that Robert Simpson didn’t like Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. Given the task of writing an essay on the work for what – eventually - became Pelican’s two volume guide to the symphony from Haydn, Simpson was extremely dismissive of both the composer and the work. Rachmaninov “could scarcely be considered an outstanding figure in Russian symphonic music”, according to Simpson, and the E minor “lapses into facile sentiment… collapses under its own weight… and drifts towards inflation”. Of course, the two volumes were first published in 1967, when recordings of the symphony were hardly as common as they are today; moreover, most recordings were performed with cuts; Previn’s first recording, made over three sessions in April 1966 and released on RCA, for example, was performed cut, but four years later when the LSO toured the Far East the symphony was played complete – a broadcast of the Osaka concert from Japanese radio confirms this.

Simpson’s essay is very much a product of its age – though half a century after it was written there are still conductors and listeners who share its instincts on both the composer and the symphony. Vladimir Ashkenazy isn’t one of them, and his new recording of the E minor with the Philharmonia Orchestra is in many ways a very good performance, perhaps not a benchmark one but distinguished enough to challenge many of the best. It’s a live recording, and I think this has considerable bearing on why it has such impact. My experience of hearing this symphony in the concert hall – under conductors such as Svetlanov, Sokhiev, Ashkenazy and, most notably, Previn – is that it has never come close to Simpson’s description of it. It took me many years, and not until I had heard him do the work live in London and Munich, to appreciate what Previn brings to it; in my view, no other conductor comes close to mastering its structural and aesthetic problems. I am not the only person who has come out of a performance of Previn conducting Rachmaninov’s Second and thought I had sat through a late Bruckner symphony, or even Sibelius’s Fourth symphony – the sheer weight of sound and bleakness defied belief, and this is largely confirmed by the dozen Previn broadcasts with orchestras in London, Pittsburgh, Munich, Vienna and Tokyo. Previn and Rachmaninov’s Second absolutely does not equate with sentiment, nor inflation – not, at least, as Robert Simpson described it. Svetlanov is at his very best in this symphony with the Philharmonia (though perhaps his best concerts of this symphony, with this orchestra, weren’t broadcast) or the NHK; he exerts similarly dark-hued tones.

In this new recording of the symphony, Ashkenazy is sometimes weighty and sometimes bleak – somewhere between Previn and Svetlanov. It is, of course, performed complete – well, sort of, in that there is no exposition repeat in the first movement, which is a departure from his Sydney recording (on Exton). In my view, this is not going to be a point of contention for most people because the repeat undermines not only the first movement, but also the balance of the symphony. Svetlanov often suggested that only Russian conductors could ever conduct the Second successfully – though, I think this has largely been discredited, if it ever had much favour at all, even though some conductors do attempt to set this particular symphony in some kind of Austro-German framework (Previn could certainly be accused of doing this in some of his live recordings). Make no mistake, however, Ashkenazy comes within an inch of making the Philharmonia sound less English than it is wont to do on many of its Russian recordings – listen to the 22 bars of the clarinet solo in the Adagio, for example, and you are consciously aware that this is much earthier than normal, almost hauntingly bleak. It is undeniably beautifully phrased, as you’d expect, but never emotionally cloying (Svetlanov, in his slowest recording of this symphony with the NHK Symphony Orchestra, is extremely poetic and places huge demands on his Japanese clarinettist - but brings it off superbly - though Svetlanov is a world away from making it sound remotely Russian). Whereas a lot of conductors don’t recognise the connection between the string writing in this movement and the sound of Russian choral singing, Ashkenazy does; a particularly egregious recording in this respect is the one by Harold Faberman who really doesn’t have a clue what this music should sound like.  Ashkenazy’s tendency to “ride” the climaxes in this movement do perhaps sound rushed at times – and I don’t think the Philharmonia basses sound quite so rich as either those for Previn (EMI) or Svetlanov (King) – and are certainly no match for Previn and the LSO live from the Salzburg Festival in August 1977.

There is much that is impressive here, however. It’s an atmospheric performance, those sustained opening bars on the cellos and basses largely setting the tone for the kind of performance it will end up being. From the outset, his tempi flow and the symphony’s momentum is never questionable; with Svetlanov, that isn’t always the case. Ashkenazy differs markedly from Svetlanov’s later approach to this symphony – Ashkenazy’s more melodic performance is certainly more mainstream, more clearly dramatic though both conductors have a very different vision of what this work’s intensity means. This is, of course, an incredibly opulent score – Svetlanov, particularly, bring out every ounce of that, giving his orchestra the space to do it. The NHK strings have a considerable richness and warmth to them and that is juxtaposed with some beautifully asymmetric coupling of brass instruments such as the horns and tuba or the trombone and trumpets. In comparison, Ashkenazy can sound a touch colourless, though he still achieves a beautiful brass sound from the orchestra. The recording, to my ears, betrays a less than even range to the Philharmonia’s string tone – violins can sound a touch “scratchy” at times. (One noticeable feature of Svetlanov’s performance is he ends the first movement on timpani and not cellos and basses. Ashkenazy ends it as Rachmaninov wrote it in his score.)

Ashkenazy’s first recording of this symphony with the Concertgebouw (Decca) has long been considered something of a classic and I don’t think this new recording entirely supplants it. It may, or may not, be a virtue of Ashkenazy’s conducting, but there is an almost timeless – some might argue ageless - quality to his conducting over the decades, a consistency to his very best interpretations that other conductors really don’t have. It works with the Rachmaninov symphonies – as it does with Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, too. It would be very difficult to suggest that this Philharmonia Rachmaninov Second is the work of a man approaching his eightieth year. Previn and Svetlanov may have made this symphony sound more compelling in details here and there; they rarely made it sound it more dramatic.

Marc Bridle

Previous review: William Hedley



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