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An Individualistic, Alternate Take on a Rachmaninoff Classic

If you’re looking to hear Rachmaninoff’s foundationally haunting, sweeping Symphony No. 2 for the first time, the London Symphony Orchestra’s latest live recording, with Simon Rattle conducting from memory – streaming at Spotify – is not the place to start. Rattle has built a hall of fame career: his recording of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 3 with an earlier version of this orchestra is arguably the best ever. But this record is strictly for the diehards.

The skeleton key that unlocks the angst and grandeur of Rachmaninoff’s vindictive response to those who said he couldn’t write a symphony is a late 70s recording by the Russian National Opera Academy Orchestra with Yevgeny Svetlanov conducting. There have been plenty of insightful and enjoyable interpretations released since then: try Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony’s version, if you can find it on vinyl, for a silkier, less ruggedly Russian take. But a battered cassette reissue of Svetlanov and his ensemble on the Russian Melodiya label remains a prized possession, something a worn-down subway rider could spin on a walkman week after week and find sustenance in every time.

This album, from concerts at the Barbican in London on successive September nights in 2019, occasionally emphasizes underlying harmonies, sometimes in the least likely places, like a remix. If you’ve listened to this symphony hundreds of times, or even a few times, they may strike you as fascinating, sometimes as odd or maybe fussy. If you haven’t listened to it hundreds of times, or even a few times, these comments may strike you as maybe marginally interesting, or odd or maybe fussy. Just keep in mind that music like this is why diehards exist.

Getting through to those moments is undeniably fun but occasionally maddening. Rattle has this in his fingers, literally, setting the bar low, volumewise to accommodate the explosive peaks. Listen closely as the first movement develops, through that exhilarating rise from wounded exchanges of strings to a first guarded triumph, and you’ll notice that Rattle is leading on the offbeat. Also, the brass and reeds – often complementary textures throughout this piece – are more prominent than usual. That’s ok – it never hurts to think outside the box.

Except when meaning is subsumed. It’s great to get that momentary violin cadenza in the first movement in high definition. But why, for example, are the horns signaling that crushing coda at 12:44 so far back in the mix? They ought to be front and center. And the ending is rushed, as is the second movement: the Dvorakian rumors of war across the plains are more of a battle among the scouts to see who can get back to the base first. Yeah, it’s a thrill to play.

Then there’s a turning point in the third movement where a furtive string riff sinks behind sustained brass, in an otherwise thoughtfully rapturous, transcendent interpretation of what could be the most beautiful portion of any symphony ever written. And there are a couple of places early in the fourth movement when a signal of crushing irony, as the composer’s ha-ha, told-you-so theme blusters in, simply goes AWOL. Under the right circumstances, this symphony should become the part of your DNA which immunizes you against pain. And this doesn’t.

March 22, 2021 - Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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