Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op.43 (1934) [23:07]
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 (1935-36) [44:36]
Yevgeny Sudbin (piano)
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui
rec. July/August 2011, Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore.
BIS BIS-SACD-1988 [68:32]
Following on from a Symphony No. 2 which wasn’t blessed with too many compliments by Dan Morgan (see review), the fruitful collaboration BIS has with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra continues, uniting them with one of its rising star soloists Yevgeny Sudbin.
This collaboration brings out the best in everyone involved, and this is one of the finest recordings of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini I’ve heard. It certainly has the measure of John Lill with the BBC National Orchestral of Wales (see review), which is very good, but which places the orchestra rather too far away to maintain much sense of detail. Where this Nimbus recording is on a single track, the BIS label has elected to go to the other extreme and give access points to everything, which results in 26 tracks, many under 1 minute, and an Introduction which is 6 seconds long, one second of which is opening silence. This is not an advantage when it comes to MP3 downloads from some providers, but is however resolved by the proportionate pricing policy of which charges by the second rather than indiscriminately per track regardless of duration.

What I like about this performance of the Rhapsody is that no attempt is made to give the work a ‘symphonic’ character, something which becomes apparent when comparing it with others such as Denis Matsuev with the Mariinsky Orchestra on its own label under Gergiev, or Mikhail Pletnev with the Philharmonia under Libor Pesek on Virgin Classics. It’s not that I’m finding fault with these performances, but I enjoy the freshness of the alternative offered by Sudbin and Shui. With the orchestra kept light and in many cases an emphasis laid firmly with the soloist there is plenty of scope for swift performing and a kind of ‘modern’ feel, almost chamber-music like for significant periods. Yes, the piano is arguably a little too far forward in the balance, but this is a case in which I have fewer difficulties with this, and in any case it is by no means as extreme as examples I’ve moaned about in the past. Counter-melodies, such as the line which goes over the piano in Variation 17 are nicely placed, and everything is performed with taste and subtlety. The ‘big tune’ of Variation 20 is done with elegant restraint. You might prefer a little more ‘oomph’ here and there, as indeed might I under certain circumstances, but I am delighted to have made the acquaintance of Sudbin/Shui in a seriously amazing Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
My main reference for the Symphony No. 3 is that with the BBC Philharmonic and Gianandrea Noseda on the Chandos label (see review). John Quinn had more problems with the piece than the recording, and I agree with his comments about the work’s episodic content. Part of the problem might also be to do with Noseda’s more urgent reading of the score. With Lan Shui’s consistently more expansive view his outer movement timings are a couple of minutes longer than Noseda’s, and the latter’s extremes of dynamic are exciting and dramatic but do serve to emphasise the sectional nature of the score. Shui may not have all the answers either, but with a more stately opening tempo he can at least allow the orchestral sonorities to develop, and Rachmaninov’s micro-melodic moments are permitted to expand more. You can take the Dan Morgan view on this, and regret a lack of fire and quicksilver passion in the first movement, or you can hope that John Quinn might have found his appreciation of the music slotting into a more logical framework in this more expansive take on the piece. There are many beautiful moments, but you will find Noseda kicking your emotions around more, and with a character which would appear more authentic for the ‘hot’ 1930s.
With superb playing and BIS’s marvellous engineering the balance between orchestral detail and expressive warmth and unity of sound is nicely communicated on this recording. In comparison the tender central moment is given rhapsodic expressiveness by Noseda and his team, the more cavernous Chandos acoustic generating a cinematic atmosphere. Shui’s horn solo is more recessed in the balance, and the picture is more intimate, the violin solo played less like the opening of a concerto, the brush-strokes of orchestral colour blending rather than standing proud. The Singapore solo winds play with élan, but the BBC Philharmonic is encouraged to be more effusive and colourful, sounding more like, well, like Rachmaninov as a result. The Singapore Symphony is by no means anaemic, but the harmonic climax at 4:46 really does pass by without the heart skipping more than half a beat. The final movement is lively and brightly attractive, but I feel the writing is now already on the wall. Each time I return to the Chandos disc I feel I’m being given more bang for my bucks.
If you are looking for bargain Rachmaninov symphonies then Mariss Jansons and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra is an excellent choice from EMI (see review and here as well), and these have also been released through Brilliant Classics Cat. 6495. On its own terms the Singapore recording is convincing enough, but Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.3 does need those compact, darting extremes more than breadth of expression after all. This is one of his works which demands a little more concentration than others, but you have to adjust your perceptions and memory settings to ‘live for the moment’ and not to expect sonata-form logic. There is plenty of structural sense and thematic integrity in those outer movements, but we all have to be wide awake to keep up.
Dominy Clements
Great Rhapsody, good Third Symphony.