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Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Symphony No 1 in D minor, Op 13 [45:15]
Symphonic Dances, Op 45 [35:37]
The Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
rec. live September 2018 & June 2019, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 9839 [80:52]

Yannick Nézet-Séguin has already made a set of the complete Rachmaninoff piano concertos, partnering Daniil Trifonov. It was Marc Bridle’s acclaim for the performances of the Second and Fourth concertos that alerted me to the series and I subsequently acquired also the disc that included the Paganini Rhapsody (review) as well as the release that coupled the First Concerto with the mighty Third (review). I thought all three discs were very good and whilst I admired Trifonov’s playing enormously, the contribution of Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphians was no less admirable. So, the prospect of a new Rachmaninoff symphony cycle from Philadelphia is an enticing prospect. I think I’m right in saying that the plan is to release one symphony each year, with the final release coming in 2023 when we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has a long and honourable association with Rachmaninoff and his music; this extends right back to the Stokowski era. For example, the composer made recordings with the orchestra of all four of his piano concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody with either Ormandy or Stokowski on the rostrum. He also conducted them in a recording of his Third Symphony. As is well known, the First Symphony received a disastrous premiere at the hands of Glazunov in 1897 and the despairing composer destroyed the score. Fortunately, the orchestral parts survived and the full score was reconstructed by Russian musicians in the 1940s. As a result, the work was successfully revived in Moscow in October 1946. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra were commendably quick off the mark and gave the US premiere of the work in March 1948. There’s an even stronger Philadelphian connection with the Symphonic Dances: Rachmaninoff dedicated the work to Ormandy and the orchestra and it was they who gave the first performance in January 1941. Inexplicably, the orchestra’s links with both works are not mentioned at all in Harald Hadeige’s booklet note.

At the start of Nézet-Séguin’s performance of the symphony the big opening gesture makes a strong impact: the sound of the orchestra is very full and the music is dramatically projected. In part I think this is because DG have recorded the orchestra quite closely. It was interesting to turn to the version which Vladimir Ashkenazy set down for Decca in August 1982 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. That was made under studio conditions in the Concertgebouw and I presume the hall was empty. In contrast to the new Philadelphia recording, the Decca engineers didn’t record the Dutch orchestra as closely and, listening, one gets much more of a sense of the acoustic of the hall. There are pros and cons to that approach. The greater space round the sound is welcome, not least because there’s pleasing bloom on the sound, especially at climaxes. However, it must be noted that at times there’s more resonance around loud chords than is the case in Philadelphia and some may find that a drawback.

Once past the rhetorical opening, Nézet-Séguin sets a lively pace for the Allegro ma non troppo – as does Ashkenazy. The Philadelphia performance is lively and dynamic. When Rachmaninoff eases into slower, nostalgic mode (2:57) Nézet-Séguin is lingering but pliable in his approach. When he gets to the string-led fugue a little later on, he injects urgency into the music, though it seems to me that Ashkenazy is even more dynamic. Overall, I liked Nézet-Séguin’s way with the first movement; it is, by turns, exciting and nostalgically romantic. In the Allegro animato Scherzo, Nézet-Séguin is appreciably steadier than Ashkenazy. The Philadelphia performance has rewarding clarity but I miss the light-footed nature of the Concertgebouw version; I like very much Ashkenazy’s deft, balletic performance. For me, it seems that it’s the Russian who more accurately conveys the ‘animato’ of the tempo marking. DG’s annotator Harald Hadeige tells us that the Scherzo “scurries by” but, in truth, it does so rather more in Ashkenazy’s hands.

In the Larghetto we find Ashkenazy is once again swifter in his approach – his performance occupies 8:52 compared with 10:10 under Nézet-Séguin. That said, the DG version benefits from highly refined playing and I feel that Nézet-Séguin conveys the elegiac nature of the music successfully. At the start of the finale the staccato string chords are slightly blunted by the resonance of the hall in the Ashkenazy recording. By contrast, the DG sound makes the Nézet-Séguin performance seem more incisive, though perhaps not as imposing as the Decca. Both conductors drive the Allegro con fuoco along excitingly. Then, when Rachmaninoff moves into his generously lyrical vein Ashkenazy, while not sacrificing feeling, moves the music forward a little more than Nézet-Séguin does. Overall, Nézet-Séguin is dramatic and exciting and he makes the lyrical stretches bloom. I can see benefits to the respective approaches of both conductors. The big difference between the two comes in the closing section. Nézet-Séguin makes the ardent rhetorical coda (from 10:43) big and powerful. Ashkenazy, however, makes the same passage (from 9:41 in his recording) simply immense, the music taken really broadly and garnished with huge, potent tam-tam crashes. Some may think Ashkenazy overdoes things – in which case Nézet-Séguin is your man – but I think the Russian conductor’s towering rendition of the closing pages is a knockout.

There’s a great deal to enjoy and admire in Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s reading of the symphony, not least the wonderful playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I don’t think anyone acquiring this disc will be disappointed but for me Ashkenazy has the edge, with his sparkling rendition of the Scherzo a key factor.

The Symphonic Dances is one of my very favourite Rachmaninoff works and so I was particularly keen to hear what Yannick Nézet-Séguin would make of the score. To be honest, there was only one choice for a comparative version: the superb recording by Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which so impressed me when I reviewed it. That was all of ten years ago and I still rate it not only as one of the best versions of the work that I’ve heard but also as just about the finest thing that I’ve heard Petrenko do during his time on Merseyside.

In the opening pages of the first of the three dances, Petrenko is marginally swifter than Nézet-Séguin and as a result the music sounds even more lithe in his hands. When we get to the achingly nostalgic slower episode that is the heart of the movement (3:36 in the DG recording) the mellifluous work of the Philadelphia woodwind section is a feast for the ears; I like, too, Nézet-Séguin’s great flexibility of tempo. When the strings take up the melody (5:51) the Philadelphia sound has a wonderful sheen to it and the playing is oh-so expressive. Mind you, the RLPO is by no means put in the shade during this episode. Petrenko’s conducting is no less seductive and his saxophonist produces a more plaintive sound. Once this long lyrical episode is behind us Petrenko is the quicker to pick up the pace, but once Nézet-Séguin has got back to full speed he matches his Russian colleague stride for stride.

The second dance is an often-ghostly waltz. The approaches of both our conductors are broadly similar. The Philadelphians offer gorgeous, soulful playing – the RLPO are jolly good too – and both conductors are adept in bringing out the subtle colourings of Rachmaninoff’s very imaginative orchestration. Where differences arise, it is generally Nézet-Séguin who is slightly fleeter of foot and he inflects the waltz rhythms delectably. From around 8:40 Nézet-Séguin’s handling of the quicksilver finish to the movement is absolutely super, though I wonder if Petrenko doesn’t produce even more of a touch of fantasy as the waltz vanishes into thin air. In truth, both performances are marvellous and full of imagination but perhaps the Philadelphia version has a slight edge.

In both performances the Allegro vivace section of the third dance is very exciting. In the Philadelphia performance the Lento assai is wonderfully rich; the orchestra is ideally equipped to do justice to all the colourings in Rachmaninoff’s scoring. There’s an extended slow episode (5:40 - 9 :27) which taps a rich vein of tender melancholy – the composer’s last such episode in an orchestral work – and Nézet-Séguin treats this with ideal expansiveness. I should say, though, that Petrenko and his orchestra tug on the heartstrings just as persuasively. The concluding Allegro vivace is electric in Nézet-Séguin’s hands; he brings the work to a finish that’s every bit as exciting as Petrenko’s. Both conductors allow the last stroke on the tam-tam to resonate and decay, as it should: by my count, the Philadelphia gong echoes for eight seconds.

As you may gather, it’s nip and tuck between these two superb accounts of the Symphonic Dances. If there are places where one conductor momentarily has the edge then shortly afterwards there will come a nuance in the other performance that delights me. The Petrenko version has long reigned supreme in my estimation; now Yannick Nézet-Séguin has matched it. I can only declare the result as the most honourable tie.

This is an auspicious start for Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Rachmaninoff symphony cycle, even if the Symphonic Dances is the highlight of the disc. I shall look forward to the follow-up releases in the next couple of years.

John Quinn

Previous review: Ian Julier

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