Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2, Op. 27 in E minor (1906-1907)
Ural Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Liss
rec. 2021, Grand Hall of Sverdlovsk Philharmonic, Yekaterinburg, Russia
Fuga Libera FUG816 [57]

Having recently reviewed the Sinfonia of London’s recording of this symphony, I thought it would be interesting to hear another new version but this time from Russia, especially as, compared with favourite recordings by such as Rozhdestvensky, I felt that the Sinfonia under John Wilson were too restrained and refined and I was hoping to find more release in a recording made by forces from the composer’s native heartland, brought to us by the small, independent label Fuga Libera.

Liss, unlike Rozhdestvensky but like Wilson, chooses not to take the repeat of the exposition in the first movement; however, his timing for that movement is rather sprightlier than Wilson’s by nearly three minutes, which is quite a lot; otherwise, the differences are minimal. As Yelena Krigonorova’s thoughtful and intelligent note reminds us, on its appearance critics immediately noted that the prevailing characteristics of the symphony are those of elegy, lyricism and, indeed, suffering, in direct line from Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique – moods which I found under-stated in Wilson’s polished account and hoped to find more overtly delineated by the Ural Philharmonic.

I loved this from the first notes: dark, brooding and sensuous playing with a hint of buzzing rawness in the lower strings, plenty of rubato but always an underlying pulse, lovely balances between the instrumental groups and splendidly menacing timpani and cymbals. The stormy development section is thrilling, then the coda picks up swiftly and neatly on the tensions of the development building to a percussive climax. One gripe, however: a curse increasingly common amongst today’s practitioners but fortunately only marginally detectable on headphones: the singalong conductor. Maestro, I don’t care how much you love the music, it is a basic courtesy to the punter paying for a studio recording that you button it. The intrusions are faint and only intermittent, but…

The scherzo-like second movement is played with real vim and attack, especially the central fugato section which has both weight and agility, the strings excelling and singing above the lovely sprinkles of sound from the glockenspiel and the mournful intoning of the Dies irae from first the horns then the brass. The problem with the famous Adagio is now its familiarity and its appropriation by Hollywood and popular ballad of first the sighing string theme, then the sinuous clarinet solo. Liss eschews sentimentality by slightly pushing the pulse of the music along and asking the strings to maintain a certain leanness of timbre (which means that his vocalise is again sometimes faintly apparent). The first great build-up exactly half way through the movement is powerful without being saccharine, then a judicious pause heralds the restatement of the Big Tune, passed from one instrumental to another, all playing with melting tone before the gradual dwindling of its controlled passion via beautifully gauged dynamics, fading and spiralling down into nothingness.

After such riches, only the most energised of finales will do and this performance does not disappoint. Shrieking woodwind, thundering timpani and the crispest delivery of the rhythmic march followed by another big, soaring melody for the strings prove consistently engaging and absorbing to the listener, in a movement capped by another scintillating coda.

This is a performance suffused with the Russian spirit, as technically and sonically proficient as it is aesthetically satisfying.

Ralph Moore

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