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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 (1935-1936) [43:26]
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Russia (Second Overture on Russian Themes) (1864, rev. 1907) [13:04]
London Symphony Orchestra / Valery Gergiev
rec. live, Barbican, London, November 2014
LSO LIVE LSO0779 [56:30]

Mention Rachmaninov to most listeners, and they will immediately think of surging, Romantic melodies and lush sonorities – and, if they are a pianist, flashy virtuoso writing and bold, dramatic gestures. But some of the composer’s scores break the mould. In the Fourth Piano Concerto, for example, annoyed by the insistent popularity of its two predecessors, Rachmaninov deliberately subverted expectations. Thus, after a whiz-bang start, the first movement makes a single brief feint at a rousing climax, which immediately subsides into a brooding string episode.

Similarly, I had somehow never noticed what a clean, clear score the Third Symphony was. Instead of massing the string sections into blocks of rich sound, the composer weaves strings, woodwinds and horns into a spare, yet full-bodied tapestry. The heavy brass adds power and brilliance at peak moments. (In the first movement, for example, only the third theme’s return expands into what one would call a “Rachmaninov climax”.) String articulations are predominantly detached. They throw the occasional legato passage into sharper relief, and allow winds, both in solos and as a choir, to “sing” through the textures easily.

The different sonority draws an appropriate response from Valery Gergiev. The Kirov’s erstwhile director, who can seem wayward and generalized in Germanic and French classics, here layers the various musical strands with painstaking precision, and even with some transparency. Some lyrical passages – the first movement’s second theme and the start of the Adagio – are slow and self-consciously moulded, but they are expressive, and Gergiev never loses the music’s long line or sense of direction. He also supplies plenty of energy and excitement where it is needed, in the second movement’s trenchant Allegro and at the angular climax of the finale’s development. It is one of his cleanest, and best, performances.

Balakirev’s Russia is less a tone-poem than a medley of folk melodies, developed and elaborated. It is similar to Rimsky-Korsakov’s scores on Russian and on Serbian themes, but less strongly integrated. Gergiev leads, again, with character and point. The second theme, as intoned by the clarinet, sounds vaguely Celtic; the last theme is gentle and undulating; the firm final tutti are crisply punctuated. But the music comes to a full stop at 7:24, like a false ending, only resuming after several seconds; I do not remember that anomaly in Svetlanov’s version on Melodiya.

The LSO is alert and responsive: the woodwind contributions in the symphony are particularly expressive and translucent. The sound is mostly excellent, although the active bassi in Rachmaninov’s finale become a bit rumbly and diffuse.

Many listeners will enjoy this disc, but if you want more conventional pacing in the symphony’s lyric episodes – and if you have kept a turntable – a sonically excellent Decca disc with Paul Kletzki leading Suisse Romande forces is worth hunting down.

Stephen Francis Vasta

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Leslie Wright

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