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Symphony No 1 & The Isle of the Dead

Russian National Orchestra, Mikhael Pletnev
DG 463 075-2, Full Price [63'45]
 Amazon UK 


This disc will cause great rejoicing to Pletnev's many fans, as it completes his recordings of the Rachmaninov Symphonies for DGG. The second symphony, some problems with the recording of the timpani excepted, received universal acclaim, the third less so, but still was more than acceptable. Where does this new disc come in this series. Unfortunately for me a very distinct third place.

As with most of Pletnev's discs, the playing of the orchestra and the recording quality are both excellent, and I found almost nothing to criticise here. After many recordings in this location, the DGG engineers now manage consistently to give a very accurate picture of the sound of this great orchestra. And so we have here, powerful brass, but not raw and completely over the top as in the old soviet days, silky sweet strings with a unanimity which is quite remarkable, and woodwinds which are both flexible and beautifully blended. If this is enough for you, then go out and buy this disc.

If however you have heard and love either the Ormandy (Sony) or the Ashkenazy (Decca) versions, you will find this current recording very low key. It is as if the conductor is saying "listen to us playing this symphony very beautifully" which is true. What is missing however is the passion, which both of the earlier versions display in abundance. I find this most disconcerting, as Pletnev's credentials in the interpretation of Rachmaninov are as good as you can get.

There are many examples also where the conductor pulls the rhythm around which destroys the flow of the music. One particularly bad example is in the finale, starting at 1"09", 1'17", 1'30", 1'35" and 1'48", where the whole forward momentum is destroyed.

Maybe on further hearings I may become more accustomed to these distortions, but I doubt it. If I had not heard many competitive versions I may have accepted these anomalies more easily but I also doubt it. The same situation arose in Pletnev's readings of some of the early Tchaikovsky symphonies where a somewhat inappropriate Bruckner like atmosphere came into the interpretation. I know that there is more than one way of playing works, and no one way is the correct way, but the tempi and rhythmic distortions within this first symphony of Rachmaninov are a little bit too much.

The symphony had a disastrous first performance, being conducted by an inebriated Glazunov. It was further savaged by the then critics, and the composer Cui described it as a programme symphony entitled "The Seven Plagues of Egypt". Luckily, Rachmaninov has come in from the cold over the past 10-15 years, but his orchestral works have still been somewhat coolly received with only the second symphony and one or two of the smaller orchestral works making it to the repertoire.

One of these is the filler to this disc, namely The Isle of the Dead, a 20 minute symphonic poem which was based upon the Bocklin picture showing the solitary oarsman steering a body to its resting place on an island in the middle of a lake. This is played superbly, and has just the right atmosphere to conjure up the atmosphere of the picture, albeit at a little lower temperature.

Documentation is very good, and if you are unaffected by my reservations, there is much to enjoy in this issue.

John Phillips

See also review by Marc Bridle

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