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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 [41:47]
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 [35:41]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
rec. live, 3 March (Op. 44) & 14 April (Op. 45) 2016, Royal Festival Hall, London
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD540 [77:34]

A few seasons ago in London, Vladimir Ashkenazy conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in a series of Rachmaninov concerts, from which these live accounts of the two late American period masterpieces, the Symphonic Dances and Third Symphony, are taken. The first two Rachmaninov symphonies were released on two earlier CDs. He has recorded all these works before with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra on Decca. Those versions are in fine early 1980’s sound and still available (plus The Bells and The Isle of the Dead) in an inexpensive box set, which has formed the cornerstone of many a Rachmaninov orchestral collection. Ashkenazy also made a series of live recordings at the 2007 Rachmaninov Festival in Sydney when he was Principal Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. They came out on the Exton label in 2010 with the addition of all the smaller orchestral pieces in studio recordings, and are still available in a comprehensive (but expensive) five-disc set. So this series with the Philharmonia Orchestra is his third in a thirty-year period, over which time, or longer, he has also recorded all of Rachmaninov’s piano music and all that for piano and orchestra. Thus few, if any, musicians can have been occupied with this composer over so long a time or to quite the same degree, or can know these works better.

Ashkenazy’s timings for his three recordings of the two works on this disc are shown in the table below. They suggest a fairly consistent approach, with timings close enough over the thee series to suggest a thought-through interpretation, but one with room for spontaneity, especially as the two later recordings are live. Comparing these to Rachmaninov’s own recording of the symphony, made with the Philadelphia Orchestra in December 1939, shows that Ashkenazy in Sydney was especially close to the composer’s timings for the second and third movements. Rachmaninov’s short timing for the first movement is explained by his (regrettable) omission of the exposition repeat, but this is otherwise still a benchmark recording. He and the orchestra had just been performing it in concert, which seems to permit subtle phrasing and a real sense of command in the playing.

 
Amsterdam Sydney London
Symphony 3 - I 16.52 15.16 15.57
II 12.31 11.29 12.18
III 12.30 12.24 13.32
Dances - I 11.09 11.15 11.26
II 8.51 9.35 10.03
III 13.24 13.46 14.23

This new Philharmonia live recording supersedes both the earlier ones for me, and is almost worthy to stand beside that of the composer. It has immense conviction, obvious authority and mastery of the idiom. At times, too, it is strikingly spontaneous, even excitable in feeling. This comes out especially in the use of rubato, such as in the symphony’s first movement second subject, where on its first appearance he pulls back a phrase while the strings have it, but pushes ahead at the same point when the brass take it over – akin to Rachmaninov’s way with rubato in some of his piano recordings. Other conductors can sound prosaic after you have heard this – unless of course it is just the sort of thing you dislike in a live performance! The second movement is superbly played, not only in its slow outer sections but also in its exhilarating scherzo passage in middle, which has a real rhythmic kick start from the strings. This score tests the conductor’s skill in making convincing transitions, nowhere more so than in the finale, which alternates between lyrical moments and dramatic ones. Ashkenazy persuades us that it all hangs together. Again, there is some swift orchestral playing to relish, not least in a headlong coda which brings the house down (as you can hear, as applause is retained in both works).

The same virtues are to be heard in the Symphonic Dances, which Ashkenazy first recorded in its initial two-piano version with Previn. Here again is a long-settled interpretation given with a new freshness. It is an account which does full justice to a brilliant score. It is possible to exaggerate the New World elements in these last works of Rachmaninov – we still get references to his Russian past from the First Symphony and the Vespers, and all the nostalgia for his homeland that was in his music long before he knew he would be exiled. Ashkenazy’s manner – as the comparative timings above suggest – indulges this aspect just that much more than before, but for me the music can take it. He often sounds reluctant to take his leave of the lyrical moments, but there is plenty of impetus, and rhythmic lift, whenever the music gathers momentum once more. The Russian conductor in such music seems never to have left his homeland, spiritually at least. In that sense he is rather like Rachmaninov himself and other exiles such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Solzhenitsyn – you can take the artist out of Russia but...

There have been other fine versions of this same coupling in recent times from American orchestras - who have some claim on these pieces, their being written in the US - from Zinman in Baltimore (Telarc) and Slatkin in Detroit (Naxos). From Russian orchestras there is Pavel Kogan (Moscow State SO on Alto) and Mariss Jansons (St Petersburg PO on EMI – also minus the exposition repeat in the first movement, alas). But the great British orchestra under its conductor laureate belongs in their company. The sound is atmospheric (given that we are in the Festival Hall) and almost too wide-ranging – take care in setting the volume at the very quiet outset of the symphony. Once you get that right for your system, there is plenty of detail to be heard, as well as impact in the forte passages. The generous notes on the music (the booklet is in English only) are very good. Overall this is a very fine issue indeed. It is something of a privilege to hear this great veteran still having so much to say about music so close to him.

Roy Westbrook

Note
NB Rachmaninov’s own recording of his Third Symphony has movement timings of 1; 12:39, 2; 11:39, 3; 12:23. He omits the exposition repeat in 1.




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