Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Prelude in C sharp minor Op.3 No.2 (orch. Stokowski)
Symphony No.2 in E minor Op.27
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 2022, Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London, UK
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview

What price can be placed on a piece of music played with the greatest technical perfection? On the one hand can music played this way ever make up for the absence of passion or other emotions? Or, put differently, can a performance conceived this way have a validity all its own?

These questions came to my mind as I listened to this now often reviewed recording by John Wilson and his marvellous Sinfonia of London. That the music recorded is by Rachmaninov, or Rachmaninoff as he is styled on the front cover, matters. Here is a composer, it would seem, where soulful feeling is of paramount importance. It is not as if the performance Wilson draws from his hand picked band is emotionless but, as most of the reviews have noted, it is very much cooked on a cooler setting than the great classic recordings of old.

I don’t intend this to be a standalone review – others better qualified to comment on Rachmaninov have already covered what any potential record buyer needs to know. My intention is that it forms a pendant to those more comprehensive explorations of the recording.

As I have outlined above, the issue is: will a recording that puts the emphasis on extreme technical perfection and which largely  eschews traditional Russian emotionality do? For me the answer is Yes even though I fully accept the points made by other reviewers. It is hugely interesting to hear this score done this way without distortions or exaggerations in the name of some Slavic spirit. I should point out that I am all in favour of such Slavic spirit but with any truly great score there are always other ways.

Unsurprisingly given the performers, what it is clearly audible is how much Rachmaninov influenced Hollywood. The golden era of the big studio orchestras featured astonishing levels of polish and sheen and they did sound the epitome of cool elegance – just as Wilson does on this record. But this is much more than Sergei Goes to Hollywood. I think Wilson pays Rachmaninov a highly flattering compliment by not sticking him in a pigeon hole marked Exotic Russian. We don’t think of contemporaries such as Mahler or even Debussy in this limited nationalist way so why Rachmaninov? In many ways this recording resembles that by Robin Ticciati in Berlin but I feel Wilson goes a step further in his devotion to technical detail and refinement.

Of course, I am not arguing that Rachmaninov has to be played this way but I was dazzled by what can be heard when somebody takes the care to do so. I guess we all knew how good his orchestration was but did we realise it was this good? Or put another way I knew he could deploy the orchestra to smoulder and lament but deploy his resources with such consummate delicacy too? Again yes we did but didn’t listening to this new recording not make even the most dedicated of Rachmaninov devotees hear things anew?

I hesitate to open up the hoary old debate about Rachmaninov the modernist but listen to the quiet buildup to the end of the first movement and we aren’t a million miles from Firebird. It is worth recalling too that this symphony was written only 14 or so years after Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, another work whose radicalism remains poorly appreciated on account of the massively accelerated pace of change in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Everybody seems to have their particular favourite recording of this symphony with Rozhdestvensky and Previn topping most of the polls but I am going to refrain from nominating my own since, at this moment, John Wilson has led me to enjoy this symphony as much as I have for decades. And that, for me, is what new recordings are meant to do.

David McDade

Previous reviews: Ralph Moore (March 2023) ~ Jim Westhead (April 2023)

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