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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op.27 (1907) [58:50]
LSO/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live 18 & 19 September 2019, Barbican, London. DDD.
Reviewed as downloaded from digital press preview
Download from (16/44.1, 24/96 and 24/192 available)
LSO LIVE LSO0851 [58:50]

What a journey Rattle has made with Rachmaninov since his first recording of the Second Symphony with the Los Angeles PO (Warner) way back in 1981. His second recording of the Symphonic Dances (Warner) in 2013, coupled with an impressive first recording of the choral symphony The Bells with the Berlin PO, announced a notably more comprehensive assimilation of the composer’s idiom and style. This new live recording from 2019 consolidates developments even further. Much aided by the LSO’s special relationship with this particular symphony, Rattle’s affinity with the composer now springs more intuitively from within, allowing the music its natural time and space to breathe. Having previously recorded the work with the orchestra for RCA/BMG in the 1960s, unfortunately incorporating the traditional cuts, André Previn’s second LSO recording from 1973 (Warner 0852892, with Vocalise review of earlier reissue) remains a groundbreaker that put the full version of one of the great late-Romantic symphonies firmly on the map.

The Second Symphony is arguably Rachmaninov’s most personal and optimistic major work. It signalled a sustained high peak of renewed creative energy that consigned the creative trauma of the premiere of his First Symphony to history, although fortunately for us only temporarily. Composition started early in the new century, but the work was not completed until 1907 during the composer’s extended temporary residence in Dresden, much missing his homeland.

The sequence of four movements could be heard to profess an autobiographical subtext of four distinct states of ecstasy - 1. A Journey from Darkness to Light via recovery, hope and self-confidence, 2. Life and Work, 3. Love and Contentment, and 4. Celebration and Thanksgiving. Rachmaninov’s development of a multi-faceted expressive trajectory around the framework of a unifying motto theme bears a marked resemblance to Elgar’s First Symphony, also composed 1907-08 and voiced with a similar Straussian opulence and string-rich orchestral palette. The pre-WW1 decade heard all three composers, and many others, sharing a predilection for an ambiguous public-personal layering of emotional range on an epic scale, each permeated by individual nationalist traits of their age - Elgarian “Pomp and Circumstance”, Straussian “Superhero” and Rachmaninov’s Russian Orthodox chants and bells, perhaps with a whiff of the 1905 revolution in the air.

The transformation of Rattle’s approach to the symphony is manifest from the very start. The first movement’s sombre introduction grows with purpose and resolve from bass textures striving ever upwards towards the light. Once the high ground of the first climax is reached, the music never returns to the depths. Even the extended moments of longing or potential nostalgia register with a positive focus and potency that never become indulgent or hamper the flow from source to sea. The main Allegro moderato is sure-footed and forthright, matched with full-throated melodic contrast and sustained momentum for the soaring second subject. The second movement Allegro molto brims with an exultant zest for life. The abrupt interruption of the fearsome central fugato section takes on a threatening tone, perhaps reflecting the increasingly busy pace of mechanised industrial and urban expansion already taking hold of the decade’s inexorable rush towards the brink. The third movement Adagio’s twin peaks of nocturnal rapture glow within a balance of nature akin to a radiant sunset and blazing sunrise. The LSO’s principal clarinettist, Chris Richards, could sing his sinuous song without words all night. Later, the take-up of the melody by the first violins brings a rare intensity, building irresistibly to an outpouring of fulfilment that also strikes a poignant and relevant chord for our own times.

Frustratingly however, performance energy seems to drop several notches in the finale. The celebratory high spirits of the Allegro sound bereft of vivace, the surging second subject lacks ideal sweep and propulsion, and unlike the previous three movements, transitions tend to hang fire. Even the extraordinary section featuring an evocation of Russian bells on speed doesn’t quite achieve full throttle. Come the coda, all safety catches should be off, but Rattle kick-starts an unmarked and unconvincing accelerando six bars before the composer’s piů mosso sprint to the finishing-post, with disappointingly tame trombones not cutting through the texture with their offbeat tenuti in the final flourishes.

Could this conundrum stem from the accompanying notes citing two separate, albeit consecutive dates for the ‘live’ recording? The consistently high level of inspiration in the preceding movements may outweigh these reservations for some listeners. The engineers have certainly overcome the difficult Barbican acoustic with even more transparency and ambient bloom than the previous 2008 LSO Live recording with Gergiev, which also crackles with fire and passion. He takes the first movement repeat, which Rattle avoids, and conjures a strikingly different demeanour second time round. However, the unmarked addition of an earsplitting timpani thwack to the final chord of the first movement more in keeping with The Rite of Spring does little to encourage repeated listening. With serious competition from Previn/LSO (Warner), Ashkenazy/Concertgebouw (Universal 4557982, Symphonies Nos. 1-3, etc., 3 CDs), Iván Fischer/Budapest FO (Channel Classics CCS21698) and Lan Shui in Singapore (recently reissued by BIS as a 4-SACD or download bundle, BIS-2512: more soon…), full enthusiasm and endorsement for the latest Rattle remain compromised for me. That said, there’s no question the considerable qualities of this new performance demand to be heard.

Ian Julier

Previous review: John Quinn

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