Rachmaninov Sym2 PC2 Gerstein Petrenko BPHR230461

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, op. 27 (1908)
The Isle of the Dead, op. 29 (1909)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in C minor, op. 18 (1901)
Symphonic Dances, op. 45 (1940)
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Kirill Petrenko
rec. 2020/21, Philharmonie, Berlin; live, 25 June 2022, Berlin Waldbühne (concerto)
Berliner Philharmoniker BPHR230461 [2 CDs: 145 + 1 Blu-ray]

Towards the end of 2023, I reviewed a single SACD issued on the Berliner Philharmoniker label. This featured Kirill Gerstein playing some solo piano pieces by Rachmaninoff and also a performance of the Second Piano Concerto in which Gerstein was partnered by the BPO and Kirill Petrenko. I enjoyed the disc very much but, though I carefully refrained from saying so, I was mildly surprised that the label, which is well known for its lavish releases had issued just a single disc to mark the composer’s 150th anniversary. I need not have worried. Here, just a few weeks after the end of the anniversary year, is a much more substantial celebration of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

I’ll start with the concerto because there’s not a lot which I can usefully add to my previous comments, though having seen the performance I can now confirm that it is indeed Wenzel Fuchs who plays the important clarinet solo in the slow movement. It’s very good that one now has the option of seeing this excellent performance as well as hearing it. Incidentally, on the film the audience bursts into applause after the first movement but, thankfully, this has been edited out on the audio disc. The performance was given as the final concert of the season, in June 2022, in the vast outdoor arena at the Berlin Waldbühne. It’s great to see an audience which must number in the thousands enjoying this music-making in the evening sunshine. I don’t know how the sound was amplified to carry to the audience but the recorded sound that we hear is very good.

The remaining performances were all recorded back in the Philharmonie. I admired the performance of The Isle of the Dead very much. It was inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s celebrated picture of the same name. I learned from Dorothea Redepenning’s very interesting essay (one of two that accompanies the set) that Rachmaninoff first saw the picture in the form of a black-and-white copy when he visited Paris in 1907. Subsequently, he saw a version in colour but admitted that he preferred the picture in black-and-white; perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised at that. Böcklin’s image clearly struck a chord with the introspective composer. Petrenko leads a fine performance which does full justice to the gloomy, dark atmosphere of the music, in which brief allusions to the Dies Irae theme abound. There’s just the right amount of weight and tonal depth in the orchestral sound. Petrenko and his players offer excellent tone painting in a reading that is certainly not short on tension. The major key episode (from 10:44) provides a respite from the prevailing mood but it’s brief and even here the tension doesn’t let up. The main climax (at 14:25) is approached with urgency and the climax itself is powerful. After this, Rachmaninoff returns to his depiction of the dark waters lapping round the Isle and isolating it from the land of the living. I found this performance compelling.

The set includes two of my particular favourites among Rachmaninoff’s output: the Second symphony and the Symphonic Dances. The very beginning of Petrenko’s reading of the symphony inspires confidence; there’s a wonderful dark glow in the opening bars before the violins enter. The extensive Largo introduction is characterised by what I might term ‘purposeful brooding’, though the soaring lyricism is also brought out very well. Once the main Allegro moderato begins (4:40) Petrenko imparts excellent ebb and flow into the music; it all feels very idiomatic. I was delighted that he takes the repeat (8:30) – not all conductors do. The development section is superb; Petrenko demonstrates a fine understanding of the idiom and the orchestra plays marvellously. This is a good point at which to say that the excellence of the recorded sound means that a plethora of inner detail registers, not least “subsidiary” string passagework underneath the melodic lines. Urgency and spaciousness combine in this account of the first movement; I found it utterly convincing.

There’s terrific dynamism in the Scherzo and I love also the way that when the broader episode is reached (1:16) the sweeping lyricism is given full value yet momentum remains. (The same thing happens when this passage is reprised later on.) The contrapuntal trio section (3:17) has huge energy and is articulated with great bite – the lead-back to the Scherzo itself is terrifically exciting. In the slow movement, Wenzel Fuchs treats us to a lovely, singing rendition of the celebrated clarinet solo. As was the case in the first movement, Petrenko achieves very satisfying ebb and flow; he manages to keep the music on the move while bringing out all the expressive qualities. At 8:23 the violins tenderly revisit the clarinet melody; they play it most beautifully while the various bits of decoration supplied by colleagues, such as the principal horn, are perfectly judged.

The finale opens with surging energy. The subsequent lyrical episode is marked con moto and that’s just what happens here; Petrenko doesn’t allow this passage to become a sentimental wallow, and he’s quite right not to do so. By so doing he ensures that this passage feels less like a nostalgic digression than is sometimes the case. Petrenko’s reading of the finale, magnificently delivered by his orchestra, provides an urgent and exciting conclusion to this great symphony. I think this is a very fine account of the symphony; for my money, Petrenko nails it and the playing is superb from start to finish.

In my list of personal favourites among Rachmaninoff’s œuvre it used to be the case that the Second symphony was easily number one. However, over the years I’ve come to esteem the Symphonic Dances at least as highly; it’s a masterly score which seems to encapsulate so many facets of Rachmaninoff’s style. It’s a huge challenge for the conductor and for the orchestra, as is especially apparent when one sees a performance. Needless to say, a conductor such as Petrenko and a virtuoso orchestra like the Berlin Philharmonic easily surmount all the challenges in what is an outstanding performance. As is their custom, the label includes as part of the documentation the dates when each work received both its premiere performance and also its first performance by the Berlin Philharmonic. The orchestra played each of the Second Symphony, the Second Piano Concerto and The Isle of the Dead within a couple of years of the works’ respective world premieres. I was genuinely surprised, though, to see that the Symphonic Dances were not played by the orchestra until Sir Simon Rattle introduced the work in November 2010, almost 70 years after Eugene Ormandy unveiled the work in Philadelphia. Rattle’s very fine premiere Berlin Philharmonic performance was issued by Warner on CD in 2013 (review).   

The start of the first Dance (Moderato) offers an arresting demonstration of the sheer weight of tone that the Berlin strings can muster. The fast music in this Dance is always strongly projected. The gorgeous, nostalgic episode (from 3:42) is introduced by an eloquent alto saxophone solo (Jan Schulte-Bunert, a guest player) with his woodwind colleagues offering splendid support, after which the yearning strings take up the melody to great effect. There’s further nostalgia near the end when Rachmaninoff alludes to his First symphony (10:49), a score which was languishing in complete obscurity at the time of the composition of the Symphonic Dances. The second Dance (Andante con moto (Tempo di valse)) is such a subtle piece; it’s full of half-lights and shadows. Here, the music benefits hugely from the luxurious, subtle Berlin strings and the supple woodwinds. All the many nuances in this movement are captured by this great orchestra, expertly guided by Petrenko, whose instinctive deployment of rubato is so idiomatic.

The final Dance (Lento assai – Allegro vivace) shows Rachmaninoff at his brilliant best. This is thrilling virtuoso music which needs to be played with great panache, as is definitely the case here. Everything about this performance seems right, from the way the episodes of swooning nostalgia are put across to the dash and brilliance with which the quick music is delivered. Right at the end, as you can see on the film, Petrenko holds the moment, ensuring that the final tam-tam crash has ample time to decay naturally. Fabulously played, this is a superb account of the Symphonic Dances.    

As you’ll have gathered from my comments on all four of the works, this is a magnificent Rachmaninoff set. Kirill Petrenko has an instinctive feel and flair for this music and it’s a real treat to hear the works played with such peerless virtuosity by one of the world’s great orchestras.

As ever, the production values from this label are very high indeed. I did most of my evaluation using the audio discs but I sampled the Blu-ray video extensively and can say that the picture quality is, as usual, top notch. I don’t have my TV linked up to my audio system; instead, I have a Cambridge audio bar from which I got excellent sound when watching the concert films. The audio side of things is excellent. I listened to both the BD-A and CD versions and was delighted with the results; the sound is full, detailed and has great presence. On my equipment I was especially impressed by the CDs, but the BD-A also gave very fine reproduction. As is always the case with Berliner Philharmoniker releases, the documentation, which is in German and English, matches the premium quality of the sound, vision and performances. There are two valuable essays about the composer and his music by Dorothea Redepenning and Rebecca Mitchell.

This is in every way a distinguished Rachmaninoff album.

John Quinn

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