Rachmaninov • Stravinsky
Recorded at the Barbican in May 2009, these are thoughtful, well-considered performances, excellently played and recorded. So why do I feel they lack something? Though their work is poles apart in many respects, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky were both virtuosos in their treatment of rhythm, as the Symphony in Three Movements and the Symphonic Dances demonstrate. In these Valery Gergiev performances the rhythms are there, of course, but the kind of whiplash incisiveness that Stravinsky himself brought to the Symphony in Three Movements in his recording for CBS (now Sony), or Rachmaninov to his account of the Symphonic Dances for RCA, is absent.
Gergiev’s rather deliberate tempo in the first movement of the Rachmaninov seems to stress the ‘symphonic’, rather than the ‘dance’ aspect of this work. The contrasting E major central section of this movement is finely played, the woodwind solos beautifully phrased, but should it sound quite so becalmed? On the other hand, Gergiev shapes the sinuously elegiac waltz-music of the second movement without losing its underlying pace. But the finale needs a sense of heedless, headlong, ultimately triumphant recklessness, rather than the touch of monumental it receives here.
Much the same might be said of the Stravinsky: overall the emotional temperature seems a bit low, despite some highly exciting passages and refined solo playing in the more lyrical moments. It’s an apt and unusual coupling, useful if you want to acquire both works. But there are simply better versions elsewhere, starting with the composers’ own. Alternatives in more modern sound include Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Concertgebouw in the Rachmaninov (Decca), and Boulez’s performance of the Stravinsky with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG).