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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 (1936) [40:48]
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940) [37:35]
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
rec. June 1997, Moscow State Conservatory
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 457 598-2 [78:34]

This re-release under licence by Presto won the Classic FM “Romantic Record of the Year” in 1998 and there is no question in my mind, despite some perversely cranky verdicts on it, but that this is the most elegant and impassioned of accounts of a symphony which can sprawl unless carefully managed. There is no real, central cohesion to it; it is a strange, capricious work and unless it is to emerge as almost a pastiche of a symphony, it needs careful handling and a very skilful conductor at the helm.

Pletnev is certainly that, his control of pacing and mood is masterly. His speeds are generally leisurely, agogic and even aleatory, yet he is not self-conscious; momentum is always maintained. Nor is there anything overtly “Russian” about the orchestra he has at his command, which he founded in 1990 and is wholly responsive to his behest. Its homogeneity and delicacy are extraordinarily sophisticated and nuanced, almost French in its translucency. This is by far the most fluid and subtle of Rachmaninov’s symphonies and the playing here is responsive at every turn to the manner in which new themes are constantly introduced then warped to avoid resolution. The key to sustaining the listener’s interest lies in the energy and fluidity with which those ideas are introduced and linked. For example, only just before the conclusion of the first movement does the composer permit an identifiable and sustained lyricism to emerge; up to that point the prevailing mood, passionate restlessness, almost anticipating Shostakovich. Yet Pletnev is equally adept at conveying the playfulness of the finale; everything about this symphony is whimsical and off-kilter, yet he is never phased by that.

The Symphonic Dances are given an equally energised and refined reading and while one can clearly hear how the Third Symphony was a prelude to this music, especially in its rhythmic variety, it is much more firmly rooted in Russian folk tradition. The final dance in particular is simply wonderful, bringing out the lusciousness of Rachmaninov’s dense orchestration and sliding, constantly inventive harmonies. Its climactic conclusion is positively electric.

I feel compelled to add that I could hardly disagree more with snarky reviews in both Classical Net in 2011 in which Pletnev’s way with Rachmaninov was described as “uneven, mannered and oddball” and Gramophone 1998 which called the playing “sluggish” and “downright odd”. We appear to have been listening to different recordings.

This well-filled disc is a gift to anyone wanting to acquire vivid, superbly engineered accounts of two of Rachmaninov’s most stimulating later works.

Ralph Moore

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