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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Isle of the Dead Op.29 (1908) [21:03]
Symphony No.2 in E minor Op.27 (1906/7) [54:09]
Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y León/ Andrew Gourlay
rec. 2017/18, Centro Cultural Miguel Delibes de Valladolid
OSCYL OSCLY001 [75:12]

It is a mark of the quality of orchestral playing around the world that a disc featuring a relatively new and unknown - outside of their own country at least - ensemble can compete in this repertoire in such a crowded and competitive field. The coat of arms of the regional government of the Junta de Castilla y León is proudly displayed across the cover and booklet of this disc as are pictures of the modern (acoustically impressive if this disc is anything to go by) Centro Cultural Miguel Delibes de Valladolid where the disc was recorded. The disc would appear to be an 'in-house' production but clearly the directors of the orchestra care enough to bring in a dream team of producer Andrew Keener with engineer Dave Rowell assisted by Robin Hawkins and Simon Eadon. Their production and technical expertise ensure that the orchestra and the disc as a whole sounds very fine indeed.

Also in the favour of this disc is the generosity of the programme. Coupling Isle of the Dead with the Symphony No.2 is not unique. RCA took Reiner's corruscating take on the tone poem and set it alongside Ormandy 70's remake of the Symphony. Likewise DG and Decca have variously repackaged back-catalogue recordings to make this coupling. But I can't think of another new 'purpose-made' recording of this coupling. So if you are considering brand new recordings of these two works in excellent standard CD stereo this is well worth considering.

Conductor Andrew Gourlay has been the Music Director of the orchestra for exactly three years. I must admit to not knowing his work but as presented here, he is very impressive. In both works where lyrical lines are long-breathed and the dangers of indulgence are rife, Gourlay proves to be excellent in his control of the big musical paragraphs. Neither performance is radical or unexpected in any respect but he chooses judicious tempi and carefully balanced orchestral textures. Perhaps his single greatest skill - especially evident in the symphony - is the way sections flow together. Everyone knows that Rachmaninov was one of the last great masters of symphonic melody. The danger for the interpreter is to become dazzled and almost becalmed by such ravishing beauty before abruptly breaking the spell and dashing forward. Gourlay achieves a real coherence and musical logic which actually underpins what skilfully constructed pieces these are.

Isle of the Dead opens the disc. Gourlay finds an ideal tempo, the 5/8 rhythm allowing the heavy weary oars of the boatman to dig into the water. Throughout, the technical team create a sound picture which is supportive without being overly resonant. Certainly this does not come across as one of those bass-rich opulent recordings which I suspect is a true reflection of both the hall and the orchestra. Simply put, after this rocking introduction the work is a conflict between the Dies Irae imbued 'death' music and the more energised 'yearning for life' motifs. Gourlay does not try to generate the near hysteria of a Svetlanov or even other well respected versions such as Ashkenazy with the Concertgebouw or Petrenko in Liverpool. So ultimately the structural control that pays dividends in the potentially sprawling symphony diminishes the sense of narrative in the tone poem.

Joanna Wyld in her fairly standard content liner (in English and Spanish only) makes one interesting point; that this symphony was worked on by the composer with extensive revisions even after the first successful performance - in her words "trimmed down considerably to make it less unwieldy". In this age of authentic/original editions I wonder if the score of that first performance still exists and whether it might ever be performed and recorded. What we have here is the now standard/uncut published score. This symphony must be one of the last large-scale symphonies that allow performers the option of an exposition repeat. Conductors are split whether to implement the repeat or not - Gourlay does not. Personally, even though it adds no 'new' material to the opening movement I like the additional weight to the opening that the repeat brings. Certainly in two of my favourite versions which include the repeat - Rohzdestvensky/LSO/Pickwick and Handley/RPO/Tring - these are brooding epic interpretations across the whole work. The Handley recording - especially in its SACD incarnation - is something of a sleeper in this work and a version well worth hearing.

Gourlay is no sentimentalist either. As mentioned across the entire work his view, while making the most of the remarkable melodic richnesss of the symphony - seeks to emphasise the symphonic coherence of the work. Here he is helped by the engineering which expertly allows the detailed inner string and wind part writing to register and also showcases how neatly and well this Spanish orchestra play. The brass climaxes are equally well controlled both in terms of dynamic and expressiveness. The price paid is the loss of the cathartic release at key moments. Likewise I do miss the little string portamenti that are not in the score but have become - rightly or wrongly - part of the performing tradition of this work. I understand why modern conductors shy away from such effects as potentially sentimental but to my mind it is to ignore a basic element of string technique from the era this music was written. Simply put, composers did not expect every musical line to be performed with complete articulated clarity - we now chose to interpret any sliding between notes as an expressive rather than technical device.

My one slightly negative observation regarding the engineering is that for my taste the timpani and percussion do not crown climaxes as I would like. Rachmaninov uses the percussion sparingly - and quite traditionally - in this work but when it is present I like it more present. The climaxes in the 2nd Symphony do not aim for the sheer power and drama of the 1st Symphony but I do feel they need to be crowned just a fraction more emphatically than they are here. For those who feel that this work can descend into a wallowing emotionalism it might well be that this performance provides an ideally clear-headed but still affectionate alternative. Gourlay's timings are generally very close to Ashkenazy's widely admired Concertgebouw recording with each movement just a few seconds either way. Only in the finale is there a substantial difference with Gourlay nearly a full minute swifter. I have not heard Ashkenazy's most recent remake 'live' with the Philharmonia. With the Concertgebouw Ashkenazy ignores the repeat, with the Sydney SO he takes it. A common factor across both the Amsterdam and Sydney performances is Ashkenazy's tendency to observe and make a real point of the many tempi adjustments Rachmaninov marks throughout the work. By no means does Gourlay ignore them but his handling of these poco ralls or piu mossos is a more nuanced thing. Either through familiarity or because that is how I know the work best I do like the heart-on-sleeve of the Russian school of interpretation but I think Gourlay achieves as fine results as I have heard with his relatively dry-eyed approach.

The quality of the solo playing of the Spanish orchestra is very high too. Take the famous never-ending clarinet solo that opens the slow movement of the work. The player here is uncredited but plays with exactly the right kind of unaffected simplicity. Indeed, this movement is a particular highlight of the performance with Gourlay finding an excellent balance between reflection and flow. Likewise his finale is a bright-eyed festive affair - considerably quicker as already mentioned but wholly in keeping with his overall approach to the work which emphasises the effervescent celebratory character of this music. Possibly the single most optimistic extended section of music Rachmaninov ever wrote.

So overall a really excellent calling card for this orchestra and their talented musical director. The booklet is well printed and well presented even if there are more photos of the concert hall than anything else. In such a crowded field it’s obviously not possible to give this an 'above-all-others' recommendation. But for someone interested in this coupling in excellent modern sound played with skill, insight and fluency this new disc deserves serious consideration.

Nick Barnard

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