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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

In 2010, in a not particularly favourable review of Leonard Slatkin’s Detroit performance of this symphony, I put forward the view that “A successful performance of almost any major Rachmaninov work will leave the listener thinking that the music is better than it really is”. I was brave – or foolhardy – enough to cite “the episodic nature of each of the movements” of the E minor Symphony, “the work being, in effect, a series of glorious moments connected by frequently rather contrived transitions”. I also dared to say that, in certain passages, “the level of inspiration falls below the line, the middle section of the finale, for example”. (I might have added to this much of the development section of the first movement.) Shortly afterwards, I was taken to task by a reader for spending too much time criticising the work and not enough time on the performance. I probably gave the impression that I didn’t like the piece, though I never intended to do so, and I’m happy to correct that impression here. I adore Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony and have done so ever since I first heard it in my teens. Not every performance, however, has me cheering at the end. I quote my 2010 review once again: “Of course the success of the whole work rests on melody. It is full of big tunes, ardent and surging, but these are constructed for the most part using stepwise motion, with rising sequences employed to increase tension. If we are not to think this artificial, a no-holds-barred attitude has to be adopted.”

Slatkin’s approach to the symphony was not, in my view, no-holds-barred. Ashkenazy’s, on the other hand, most certainly is. There is a solidity to the lower strings and in those baleful, answering wind chords that convince right from the start. One listens on with anticipation. The strings rise to a fervent climax which then subsides into melancholy contemplation, and here, as elsewhere, Ashkenazy has a master’s touch when it comes to pulse, moving forward, holding back. Some might find it fussy, but not I: it all seems natural and spontaneous, even when not sanctioned by the score. Four and a half minutes pass and we are only at the end of the first movement introduction, giving some indication of the leisurely way in which this monumental work unfolds. And then, a disappointment, which I mention just once, as it’s my only one, though an important one. Ashkenazy chooses not respect the composer’s indication that the exposition be repeated. I think this is both a pity and a mistake: a pity because the music is so gorgeous that one is perfectly happy to hear it again; and a mistake because the abrupt change of mood at the beginning of the development comes too soon in the context of a work that lasts an hour. Rachmaninov’s great strength was melody and invention, not development, but Ashkenazy makes the most of the passage, exaggerating some details to great effect. He then leads the music on to the movement’s climax where, uniquely in my experience, he finds not only violence but something close to horror. It is a remarkable achievement.

The faster passages of the scherzo are thrilling, and Ashkenazy makes sure that the music of the slower passages caresses the ear. The middle section, a kind of violin exercise that becomes a pianissimo military march – what’s it doing there? – is brilliantly handled, and the accelerando return to the main theme is sensational. In the celebrated slow movement tune the playing of the first clarinettist – I assume it is Mark van de Wiel, whose name appears only in the list of orchestra personnel – is a marvel of control of line, colour, pulse and expression. It doesn’t get better than this. Yet when the first violins take up the same melody later the playing is just as seductive. Ashkenazy knows how to whip up excitement in the finale, and the effect is irresistible. More elusive is the skilful way in which he integrates the huge and gorgeous second subject into the whole, allowing him to use it, as the composer surely intended, to bring the work to its exhilarating close.

My point about this work is that an objective judgement would point out its weaker passages and conclude that the whole does not add up to the kind of symphonic journey you find in, say, Beethoven’s Fifth, even in Mahler’s Fifth or in Shostakovich’s Fourth, Fifth or Tenth. (I’m aware that this is all very contentious.) This is why it needs the conductor’s help. Writing in 2010 I drew attention to three other performances I admire, those by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky with the London Symphony Orchestra (Regis), James Loughran and the Hallé (EMI Classics for Pleasure) and Edward Downes conducting the BBC Philharmonic in 1994 on a disc given away free with the BBC Music Magazine. This new performance now joins that select group.

Vladimir Ashkenazy makes Rachmaninov the star of the show, but the rapturous applause that greets this live performance – the audience is otherwise totally silent – is surely in appreciation of the performers too. And no wonder: the playing of the Philharmonia Orchestra, its assurance, unanimity and sheer beauty of sound, is outstanding. Simon Rattle is said to have observed that the Royal Festival Hall acoustic “saps the will to live”, but Andrew Cornall and Jonathan Stokes must be congratulated on the richness and presence of the sound quality they have achieved here. The disc is presented to Signum’s usual high standard, with a communicative insert note by Wendy Thompson that perfectly combines intriguing background information with a descriptive guide to the work.

William Hedley

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