rachmaninov symphonies naxos

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op.13
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op.27
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op.44
Symphonic Dances, Op.45
The Isle of the Dead, Op.29
Vocalise, Op.34/14
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. Orchestra Hall, Detroit, 2009-12
Naxos 8.503278 [3 CDs: 201]

This is Leonard Slatkin’s second traversal of the complete Rachmaninov symphonies – he made an earlier cycle back in the 1980s with the St Louis Symphony Orchestra – but it has been enthusiastically welcomed by several critics in America despite the appearance of a whole raft of sets of the complete Rachmaninov symphonies that have emerged in the intervening years. The three individual CDs that were released between 2010 and 2013 have now been collated into a handsome sleeve with a distant mist-enshrouded view of Detroit that makes the city look deceptively romantic; but they remain in their original packaging with the notes by Keith Anderson, and complete lists of the players in each recording.

These lists of players make for enlightening reading. It is evident that between 2009, when the Second Symphony was recorded, and 2011, when the other two discs were laid down, the personnel in the string desks of the orchestra was whittled down by some ten players. And in the two later recordings I did feel some consequent lack of weight in the string tone, and a feeling that the romantic lushness that one has associated with Rachmaninov since the days of his recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1930s was somehow less than fully served by the orchestral balance.

When I reviewed the disc containing the Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances on its original release back in 2013, I explained this as a conscious attempt by Slatkin to furnish Rachmaninov’s rhapsodic structure with a more symphonically cogent sense of argument. But even then I noted that the internal balances, although beautifully clear, were not ideal, observing that the saxophone solo in the opening movement of the Symphonic Dances lacked the sense of body and presence that was required if it was to rise above the accompanying rippling woodwind figurations. Listening to the recording again, I note also that when the strings take up the saxophone melody there is a sense of coolness to the delivery; and the reference back to the First Symphony at the end goes for very little by comparison with the more personal interpretations of other conductors.

This evident desire of Slatkin to avoid over-egging the pudding, to emphasise Rachmaninov’s innate sense of structure, is equally clear in his interpretations of the First Symphony and indeed in the earlier account of the Second where once again he reins back the string-drenched tones of Rachmaninov’s climaxes. It is interesting to see that the several other reviewers from this site who also reviewed the earlier releases consistently referred to the perceived coolness of the interpretations. On the other hand this works superbly in The Isle of the Dead, where the violence of the brass interjections brings a real sense of drama where other performances can simply drift. I suppose it all depends on what you want: either a Rachmaninov who does not deserve all the accusations of sentimentality which are often so unjustly thrown at him, or a Rachmaninov who unashamedly wallows in the emotions that he so enthusiastically conjures up. Or indeed, which Rachmaninov you want to hear on a particular day. There is certainly room for both.

I am pleased that Slatkin includes the Symphonic Dances in his complete conspectus; the work is indeed Rachmaninov’s Fourth in all but name, and its undoubtedly nostalgic view of the composer’s career makes it an essential part of the cycle. We do not in consequence get the early Youth Symphony that Ashkenazy included in his Decca cycle, but that is not a great loss. On the other hand it would have been nice to have The Bells, though – another work that has undoubted symphonic pretentions.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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