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Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op 27 (1907)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live 18 & 19 September, 2019, The Barbican, London. DSD
LSO LIVE LSO0851 SACD [58:50]

This is not Sir Simon Rattle’s first recording of Rachmaninoff’s Second symphony. He recorded it for EMI with the Los Angeles Philharmonic decades ago – I think that at the time he was their principal guest conductor - but, as I recall, it wasn’t all that well received. I’ve never heard it and I believe it’s long deleted. There is a 2011 filmed performance with the Berlin Philharmonic (review) but a new audio recording from him is a welcome proposition. This new LSO Live SACD comes from two performances given in September 2019. My colleague Claire Seymour attended the first of the concerts to report for Seen & Heard International (review). The programme that evening was quite substantial: the symphony was preceded by the small matter of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto.

It’s worth reflecting that the LSO has quite a history with the Rachmaninoff Second when it comes to recordings. It was they who made one of the classic recordings of the symphony with André Previn for EMI (review). I retain a huge affection for that recording – one of Previn’s finest achievements in the studio – but one can’t overlook the fact that the analogue recording is now nearly fifty years old. There’s also their 1988 studio recording with Gennady Rozhdestvensky, which Rob Barnett aptly described as “succulent and sumptuously upholstered” (review). Rozhdestvensky’s reading of the score is memorable, though some may feel that his approach to the first movement is somewhat too expansive – he takes 24:30. The other LSO recording of the symphony that sits on my shelves is rather more recent. It was made for LSO Live in 2008 by Rattle’s predecessor at the LSO, Valery Gergiev, and I completely share Dan Morgan’s enthusiasm for it (review). Indeed, I think it’s one of the best recordings I’ve heard of anything from Gergiev. There are two important differences between the two LSO Live versions from Gergiev and Rattle, which I’ll come to in a moment. Actually, make that three differences: in their packaging of the Gergiev recording LSO Live spell the composer’s name ‘Rachmaninov’, which is my personal preference, but here the name is rendered ‘Rachmaninoff’, so that’s the spelling I’m using in this review.

In their publicity for this release LSO Live make a big thing of the fact that Rattle performs “the uncut version of this symphonic treasure”. Actually, I don’t think that’s all that remarkable: happily, few if any conductors nowadays inflict the once-common cuts on this score. That said, Rattle’s performance is not as complete as the Gergiev version. At the end of the exposition of the first movement, Rattle goes straight on (as Previn did) whereas Gergiev makes the repeat (as did Rozhdestvensky). As a result, the first movement plays for 18:59 in the Rattle version but for 22:31 under Gergiev. That’s one of the two differences between the two LSO Live recordings that I mentioned earlier. The other lies in the recorded sound. Interestingly, both recordings were engineered by Jonathan Stokes and Neil Hutchinson of Classic Sound Ltd. Having compared the two, it seems to me that the Gergiev sound is a little more distanced than the recording of the Rattle performance. The new version has terrific impact and yields a great deal of inner detail. The sound for Gergiev, being a little less immediate – though still very good – may please those who find recordings made in the Barbican a bit too close for comfort. My preference, on balance, is for the sonics on the Rattle recording but I enjoy the sound on the Gergiev disc too.

Rattle’s performance is a fine one. The brooding Largo introduction to the first movement is sculpted with great care, not least for dynamics, and the phrases rise and fall very idiomatically. The Allegro moderato (4:35) moves forward convincingly. Rattle brings out the yearning and passion in the music. Where Rachmaninoff becomes lingering Rattle is in tune with the composer’s demands, but there’s also a good deal of energy in the music-making, not least in the last couple of minutes.

The opening of the Scherzo is impulsive and exciting. Just over a minute into the movement Rachmaninoff gives us one of those big swooning string melodies that are so much a trademark of his style. Rattle and the LSO deliver it gloriously – and the music is treated, if anything, even more lovingly, portamenti and all, when it reappears later. The fugal episode (from 3:29) is articulated with all the bite and energy you could wish for and the eventual reappearance of the initial scherzo material is brilliant and dashing. In the slow movement the LSO’s principal clarinettist, Chris Richards, has his moment in the sun: he plays the famous wistful solo with great poetry. That clarinet melody is the cue for a wonderful performance of the movement The LSO plays superbly, giving full value to Rachmaninoff’s oh-so long, nostalgic melodies. Furthermore, Rattle’s attention to detail, the players’ excellence and the skill of the engineers mean that we hear an abundance of inner detail underneath those long melodic lines. Perhaps the most memorable part of this particular performance comes in the second half of the movement. From 9:18 the violins gently play the melody which we first heard from the clarinet. The LSO’s silky violins convey the tune to perfection, but just as ear-catching is what’s going on around the tune. In perfect balance with the main melody, we first hear a golden counterpoint from the principal horn (Timothy Jones) and later on various woodwind principals also provide exquisite decoration to the main theme. This is top-class orchestral playing.

The finale opens in a suitably festive mood. Thereafter, Rachmaninoff indulges himself – and us - with several lyrical diversions, recalling material and moods from earlier in the symphony. These are all given their proper due in Rattle’s performance but he maintains a focus on the prime, extrovert purpose of the movement. The last couple of minutes are full of exuberant, swelling romanticism as Rattle and the LSO bring the symphony home in a way that, I feel sure, brought the house down in the Barbican – though, as is their wont, LSO Live don’t include any applause at the end.

This is a richly enjoyable performance of Rachmaninoff’s great symphony. Simon Rattle is a highly persuasive advocate for the score while the playing of the orchestra is fully worthy of the LSO’s distinguished tradition with this work.

John Quinn

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