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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 1 in D minor (1895) [43:18]
The Isle of the Dead (1909) [21:25]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowsky
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, October 2014 (Isle), December 2016 (Symphony)
LPO LPO0111 [64:51]

I love Rachmaninov’s First Symphony. I regard it as his most original utterance, and over the years I have developed very fixed preferences about how it should be performed, especially as regards the last movement. The original score is lost. Since Rachmaninov never got around to revising the work after its crushingly bad reception, it has had to be reconstructed from orchestral parts. Jurowsky conducted it in London in early October 2014, and later that month, on a visit to Philadelphia, he asked to see Eugene Ormandy’s score, used in its first American performance. An interesting description of his findings can be read here: Jurowsky and Ormandy's Score.

Essentially, Ormandy took it upon himself to occasionally amend Rachmaninov’s orchestration. By including parts for a glockenspiel (very audible in the first movement of his 1966 CBS recording), he ventured into territory that Jurowsky maintains Rachmaninov would never have followed. The use of such an instrument in a symphony in Russia at that date would have seriously violated the rules followed by composers – percussion was not to include exotic instruments. However, cymbals were clearly not exotic, a fact which presumably lies behind the happenings at various points in this recording, which is not of the highly acclaimed 2014 performance. It is, in fact, Jurowsky’s second performance, made two years later in 2016, that we have here. Did Jurowsky’s research lead him to make his own adjustments? Well, in the first two movements, the cymbals are used to a degree that I have never heard before. Indeed, in the development section of the first movement, they appear so prominently and repeatedly that their sound becomes tiresome.

Putting that matter to one side, my feelings towards recordings of this piece are as follows.

There are two extremes of interpretive stance. The coolly objective type is exemplified by the recent recording by Kitaenko at the helm of the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, reviewed here. The no-holds-barred type reaches 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. This performance, like its predecessor, demonstrates totally committed music making (Warner Music France 5101 12238-2)!

Jurowsky gives us a mixed bag. The first movement combines power and languor to great effect, marred only by the nuisance of the cymbals. The recording has great weight in the bass and is definitely ‘close-up’. This has the effect of minimising audience noise (actually, I heard none); it can result in somewhat unnatural balances for the beautifully played woodwind, but its impact cannot be denied. The allegro animato second movement again suffers from some cymbalitis, but its fleet bustling is well done. The larghetto third movement is always interesting. Whilst it contains a beautiful, typical Rachmaninovian tune as its main theme, initially played on the clarinet, and later with two cellos, it is not presented to us with the sort of impassioned fullness that we are treated to in the E minor symphony. I always feel a bit annoyed that the middle of this movement has a gloomily contrasting section for low strings and brass, which interrupts the previously delicate scoring. However, once it is out of the way, the movement slowly comes to an end in tranquil beauty.

And so, to the finale. Jurowsky presents the famous opening fanfare in a slightly pompous manner which surprised me, although the subsequent luscious string melody is beautifully done. There should be a ferocious quality in the opening section which Jurowsky does not completely miss, he just does not give it with quite enough verve. When the music accelerates to its grand climax, splendidly done here, the massive gong stroke which precedes the doom-laded coda is not forceful enough, nor is it as deep-toned as would be ideal, although it makes a suitably sonically saturating companion to the lower reaches of the orchestra in the repeated bars at the very end, as the descent into the pit grinds to its crushing termination.

So, this is a compromised performance, wherein the excessive deployment of cymbals becomes an irritation, insufficiently compensated for by the excellent playing and other performance qualities.

The CD opens with The Isle of the Dead, Rachmaninov’s gloomily impressive tone poem of 1909. It describes the black and white version of Arnold Böcklin’s painting depicting a white-robed figure, standing in a boat. The boat bears a coffin that glides towards a rocky island cemetery. The recording is very immediate, but is also very effective in presenting us with this superb performance, about which I have no reservations at all. In fact, it is just about the most powerfully hypnotic recording of the piece that I have ever heard. The striking, unusual, repetitive rhythm of the music, representing the slow, regular dipping of the oars, leading to a huge climax as the boat approaches the towering cliffs of the island, is overwhelming. The orchestra plays splendidly under Jurowsky’s inspirational guidance. I think I noticed one very reticent cough, but it is almost totally masked.

To summarise, a less than completely successful symphony, coupled with a knockout Isle of the Dead.

Jim Westhead

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