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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 (1897) [46:38]
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 (1936) (I-II) [42:59]+
CD 2
Symphony No. 3 (III)
Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1908) [56:07]*
L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (1), London Philharmonic Orchestra (2, 3)/Walter Weller
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, August 1972; Kingsway Hall, *May 1973, +March 1974
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0824 [76:48 + 69:18]
Experience Classicsonline

This release is enlightening on two fronts, one aesthetic, one discographic. Aesthetically, it reminds us that, despite the image of Rachmaninov propagated by academics and miscellaneous avant-gardistes as an unregenerate reactionary, his music incorporates novel and imaginative elements within its admittedly Romantic idiom. Much of the D minor symphony has an unsettled air contradicting the stereotype of self-satisfied lushness; the orchestration of the A minor symphony, particularly in its central Adagio ma non troppo, is unexpectedly pointillistic, rather than conventionally rich. Even the E minor Symphony encompasses a real innovation in its assignment of quick, legato motifs to the horns; those short, whooping phrases add a new weight and dynamism to the orchestral textures.

Additionally - and importantly, for younger listeners, or those with short memories - these performances remind us that Walter Weller, whose "day job" was co-concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, was quite the distinctive conductor as well. His recording activity, for Decca and later Chandos, was unfortunately sporadic; Stateside, at least, he was hardly a household word.

The D minor symphony shows what we've missed. I'm not sure why Decca chose to record this piece in Geneva - perhaps the orchestra, which had previously documented lovely if unambitious readings of the other two symphonies under Paul Kletzki, had been contracted for this one as well. Weller's intense performance of the first movement finds this musical but generally second-tier ensemble playing well "above its head." Certainly this bold, brazen brass playing wasn't a hallmark of the Ansermet era; neither were these tensile, bristling strings, opening in a moment into full-throated lyrical outpourings. The sparkling woodwinds, conversely, are a familiar quantity.

In the remaining movements, Weller gives every phrase due consideration, taking nothing for granted, but ensemble is less keen. The scherzo isn't so tautly etched, but the conductor captures its churning Angst, with tender woodwind phrases providing only a brief respite. The conductor builds the slow movement inexorably, but one expected a more strongly profiled, eventful journey -- the climax at 9:02, for example, wants fuller tone than this -- so the concluding major-key resolution feels unearned. The finale recovers somewhat: Weller has both the fanfare-festooned marziale theme and the rhythmically off-kilter second group well in hand, though the playing doesn't regain the dazzling heights of the first movement.

In the E minor symphony, Weller's tempi as such aren't extreme, but the conductor draws sharp contrasts between them, playing off agitation and lushness against each other. Thus, after a purposeful, deliberate introduction, with the separate phrases distinctly marked off, the pace steps up conspicuously for the exposition proper at 5:24; the airy second subject (7:02) begins quietly, but keeps on moving. In the development, which correctly returns to the impulsive manner; Weller's grip is a bit less sure -- there's a lot going on here -- but he keeps the textures reasonably well sorted, and the little brass fanfares are unusually bracing. The incisive scherzo similarly allows for a pronounced, expansive relaxation for the contrasting subject at 1:11; Weller perhaps maintains the momentum a bit too rigidly for the coda, where the clarinet seems hasty. In the spacious slow movement, the sustained clarinet notes maintain a clear sense of direction; the mood moves through nostalgia and regret before the positive though strangely un-reposeful resolution. The finale maintains a forthright bustle through the coda, though Weller finds time for some expansive surges along the way.

With the A minor symphony, Rachmaninov steps somewhat away from the E minor's "cosmopolitan" stance, tapping instead into a familiar Russian strain of melancholy, though presenting it in posh orchestral garb. In the first movement, surging strings parlay the melancholy into full-blown nostalgia; the second subject - the "lonesome cowboy" theme - begins with dark, resonant 'cellos, building steadily in affirmation through the brass restatement. Once past the exposition repeat -- which, after so convincing a journey through the exposition, feels oddly redundant -- the development ratchets up the anxiety level, and this is reflected in the recapitulation. The first theme has become desolate, answered with a consoling sweetness; the second theme isn't allowed its optimism unimpeded - all the little harmonic and motivic disruptions pose obstacles, and the upward harmonic shift in the tutti distinctly undermines it. Throughout, Weller's keen dynamic control shapes the music in compelling arcs.

The second movement - Adagio ma non troppo, though with an edgy, undulating faster episode - is unusually ambivalent. The opening horn solo over harp chords is soft-edged, and we can't tell where it's headed; it unexpectedly settles into the major, with a sweet and searching violin solo. At 3:12, the mood is anxious; unstable harmonies belie the ascending strings' Romantic sheen. The crisp, pointed finale fittingly rounds off an intrepid, exploring score.

The engineering, from the heyday of Decca analog, is breathtakingly pellucid in Geneva, as impressive in the quiet passages as in the big, juicy ones. The rich Kingsway Hall sound is excellent in its way - note the deep, focused basses at the start of the E minor - but an elusive interference, not even tangible enough to be called "white noise," compromises the quiet background. Listen to the sparkling woodwinds at 4:05 of the D minor's first movement, crisply defined against pristine silence, and then compare the English horn solo at 5:02 of the E minor - there's definitely "something" there. Additionally, the mixing board has been applied to the E minor with a heavy hand: the pumped-up sonics become claustrophobic when everyone's going, and, while the full-throated interplay of parts at 6:50 of the Adagio is impressive, there's nowhere to build for the climax at 7:47 - the textures have already reached saturation point.

These performances, like most of Weller's others, unfailingly command attention, and the set is inexpensive enough. Still, depending on your particular interest, it might be worth picking and choosing from among the separate Eloquence issues of the individual symphonies, which come with fillers. Note also that to accommodate the three symphonies on two discs necessitates splitting one symphony - here, the A minor - between them. Meanwhile, I'm holding on to my LP of Weller's E minor - the rich-sounding vinyl proves more forgiving of the mix-down's excesses.

Stephen Francis Vasta


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