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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Prince Rostislav - tone poem after A. K. Tolstoy (1891) [15:01]
Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13* (1895) [44:17]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 10-11 April 2013 (Prince Rostislav), 20 August 2013 (symphony), * recorded in concert
WARNER CLASSICS 4095962 [59:18]

Everyone seems to be recording Rachmaninov’s First Symphony at the moment; I’ve heard two recent - and very different - accounts from Lan Shui and his fine orchestra (review) and Leonard Slatkin and his rejuvenated Motown band (review). Matters of interpretation aside it’s clear both ensembles are in good shape; speaking of which, Vasily Petrenko has transformed the Royal Liverpool Phil into a very disciplined and exciting bunch of players. I may not care for the Shostakovich cycle they have in hand for Naxos but I’m very impressed by their new-found vitality and confidence.
 
So, while Petrenko has proved himself as an orchestra builder I’m far less sure about his abilities as a conductor. Two of his Prom concerts - Tchaikovsky’s Manfred in 2010 and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances this year - struck me as very proficient, even thrilling at times, but neither was particularly coherent or insightful. Perhaps it’s what Forster archly called ‘the cleverness of the young’, a surfeit of confidence that masks a dearth of substance. That sounds pretty harsh I know, but in this repertoire Petrenko simply doesn’t measure up to the best - or even the very good. Still, there’s always the chance of a Damascene conversion; could this be that pivotal moment?
 
The disc opens with Prince Rostislav, a student work based on a poem by Alexei Konstantinovich Tolstoy. A tale of 11th-century skirmishes, defeats and ignominious death it’s the kind of material that invites the wide-screen treatment. That’s precisely what it gets from Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos; full of atmosphere and propelled by a keen sense of anticipation it’s an impassioned reading that grips one from first to last. By contrast Petrenko seems pale and uncertain; he’s well recorded - albeit with an exaggerated ‘hi-fi’ presentation - but his performance lacks the sheer weight and sense of drama that Noseda brings to the piece.
 
It’s not all about unbridled emotion, and Petrenko does coax some radiant, beautifully sustained sounds from his players. That said, his account of the tone poem is just too bland for my taste. I really missed the flashes of colour and temperament that Noseda finds here, and the wide-ranging but rather arid recording drains the music of essential life and energy. Even then I still prefer the Warner sound to that of Naxos in this hall, as it has extra warmth and weight. There’s not a lot in it though, and neither is top notch in this respect.
 
Not an inspiring start, I’m afraid; what of the symphony? I’ve long admired the full-blooded performance - and sonics - of Ashkenazy and the Concertgebouw on Decca, even if it is rather overbearing at times. Slatkin’s reading is far less volatile, and Lan Shui’s is airy and transparent. The latter may be an acquired taste - I didn’t warm to it at first - but it is very refreshing. By contrast Petrenko veers towards the Ashkenazy end of the dramatic spectrum, with a big, brawny start that’s certainly arresting. Trouble is, that’s pretty much where it stays thereafter.
 
The dynamic swings are extreme - crushing, even - and I suspect the effect in the hall must have been overwhelming; whether it works in a more confined domestic setting is another matter entirely. On the plus side Petrenko finds more variety and animation here than Lan Shui, but unlike Ashkenazy his reading is devoid of shape and character. Frankly his almost ruthless virtuosity - typified by a tendency to overdrive the climaxes - becomes tedious after a while. As for the Allegro animato it has an extraordinary vehemence that’s breathtaking in its declamatory power, yet it has little else to offer.
 
That’s exactly my problem with Petrenko; his performances are all about grand, self-serving gestures, a hectoring ‘me, me, me’ that thrusts itself between the listener and the music. To some extent it’s about his apparent inability to calibrate dynamics in a way that sets up and maintains a strong, varied and compelling narrative; yes there are some very engaging paragraphs, but his chapters signally fail to please. The martial finale is cringing in its crunch - those ‘hi-fi’ sonics again - and the pizzicato strings are wonderfully crisp and clean. I really do applaud Petrenko for the tautness and clarity he brings to this music; now if only he would cultivate a more probing, forensic interest in the score.
 
Petrenko fans will flock to buy this disc, and why not? It’s engorged with testosterone - a little oestrogen wouldn’t go amiss here - and the fearsome recording will make your ears bleed. Thankfully Ashkenazy and his Dutch band are visceral without being quite so brutal; Slatkin’s reading is steadier and more thoughtful, and Lan Shui will appeal to those who - like me - are weary of the prevailing view that big and brazen is best. What makes the latter even more tempting is the coupling, Yevgeny Sudbin’s gorgeous performance of the First Piano Concerto. Both works are sensibly scaled and, perhaps most welcome, they rejoice in sophistication rather than slam.
 
Rachmaninov with plenty of brawn but very little brain; headbangers only need apply.
 
Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei

Masterwork Index: Rachmaninov symphony 1