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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 | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Leading the Way for Women Composers at Lincoln Center

To celebrate one hundred years of women voting in this country, the New York Philharmonic have launched Project 19, a major initiative to feature women composers in their regular programming. That’s a genuine paradigm shift, in the wake of the ugly confirmation from a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survey confirming that as recently as 2015, the major orchestras in this country have been performing works written by women less than two percent of the time

Dovetailing with the Philharmonic’s long-overdue move, the Juilliard School are staging an unprecedented series of free concerts the last week of this month, with both semi-popular and obscure works by women from over the past two hundred years. The first is on Jan 24 at 7:30 PM at the conservatory’s Sharp Theatre, with a student ensemble playing music by Jacqueline Fontyn, Ursula Mamlok, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Elisabeth Lutyens and Galina Ustvolskaya. Free tiix are currently available.

For what it’s worth, Helen Grime is not one of the composers featured during this marathon week, possibly because she’s one of the better-known women in new classical music. There’s a fantastic London Symphony Orchestra recording of her Woven Space triptych conducted by Simon Rattle streaming at Spotify that you should hear, if staying on top of what’s happening in that world matters to you…or if you love John Barry or Bernard Herrmann suspense film scores.

The orchestra pounce on Grime’s sharp, anxious, Rite of Spring-ish introduction and swing its swirling variations around, brass and percussion dancing amid the strings as the first movement gains momentum. A distant horn sounds over a momentary lull, the angst returning with a vengeance anchored by low, sustained bass.

The second movement begins with disquieting chimes and disorienting, acidic resonance, nebulous strings in the background. There’s a sense of horror rising as sudden accents puncture the stillness, receding momentarily for an elegantly circling call-and-response. Sprightly dancing riffs interchange with bright brass, then ominous bass introduces a brooding reflecting pool of sound. The dance returns furtively – a celebrarion of the human spirit amid constant surveillance?

A tensely gusty circle dance kicks off the concluding movement, delicately churning amid heavy, stern percussion accents. A brief, eerily starry interlude rises and morphs into a series of bracing echo phrases. Grime’s low-high contrasts and reliance on percussion have Stravinsky’s fingerprints all over them; the dance ends suddenly and without closure.

January 19, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment