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Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 (1909)
Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14 (1915)
Symphony No. 3, Op. 44 (1935-36, rev. 1938)
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 2021, St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London

Earlier this year, both Simon Thompson and I gave the orchestral recital of music by Strauss, Korngold and Schreker by John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London very strong recommendations (RM review, ST review); this new issue of three works by Rachmaninov is of the same high quality. Especially impressive is their account of The Isle of the Dead; they easily encompass the dramatic range and the whole gamut of moods of this miraculous work. Back in 2010 two colleagues and I did a blind listening of ten recordings of it and I have no doubt that this is as good as, if not better than, any of those we auditioned.

The opening is wonderfully minatory and atmospheric: the pacing and dynamics are perfect, the orchestral sound is deep, dark and expansive, and the rising scales constitute a sinuous, menacing thread, creating a dreadful sense of foreboding - but the orchestra is equally adept in capturing the yearning and nostalgia for lost love and life. For me, there are several “goosebump moments” in this rendition: the biting upper strings five minutes in, like a distant chattering of demonic voices, the explosive brass climax at eight minutes before the exhausted relapse into defeat, the ominous brass chorale ten minutes in – those few minutes are a real “purple passage” in terms of both composition and execution, the second, even greater climax twelve minutes in and the searing pain at 13:35 followed by Rachmaninov’s trademark Dies irae, the contributions of solo violin, oboe and bass clarinet, the dark hues of the woodwind in general – everything here is superlative.

After such strife, the orchestrated version of Vocalise is balm to soothe the tormented ear. It is here played a little faster than Petrenko’s with the RLPO but also with rather more grace and elegance – and more affection in the phrasing, more dynamic variety and a more sumptuous string tone; it is decidedly superior.

The Sinfonia is made up of personnel from the big London orchestras and yet manages to sound authentically Russian and completely at home in this music. The flexibility of John Wilson’s conducting ideally suits the challenging, even problematic nature of Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony, the last, freest and most concise in form of his symphonies. While there is a real sense of ebb and flow, he keeps a firm grip so that it doesn’t sprawl and lose shape – always a danger with this work. The surging, Romantic melody beginning at 5:25 isn’t sentimentalised and a sense of momentum is maintained until the first big climax almost halfway through, before the muttering and buzzing on the strings intrude and tension is once again gradually built; then come typically dark, brooding motifs and cascading string figures set against percussive outburst – all highly efficiently managed and skilfully controlled.

The Adagio soars and surges beautifully; there are admirable solo passages from the flute and woodwind in general and again the gradual ratcheting up of from the mid-point onwards is ideally handled before the music relapses into its previous languid sensuality.

The roistering, rambunctious finale with its frequent changes of pace and mood and allusion to Russian dance is a kaleidoscopic medley requiring unanimity and co-ordination of the highest order and the pin-point accuracy of the Sinfonia here is mightily impressive. A word, too, especially in praise of the percussion bank here - so important in Rachmaninov. The conclusion is riotous yet its execution is wholly disciplined; both for sound engineering and interpretative excellence this is a recording to stand alongside my other favourites from Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for both the Isle of the Dead and the symphony, and Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra for the symphony coupled with the Symphonic Dances (review).

Ralph Moore

Published: November 3, 2022

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