Rachmaninov Dances from Aleko; Symphony No. 2
What a clever idea it was to launch this CD with the super-subtle Liverpool woodwind in the spotlight, lilting in the ‘Women’s Dance’ from Rachmaninov’s one-act opera Aleko. And it is the woodwind’s highlighted presence in the Second Symphony which adds an extra level of meaning, far from the usual feel of lush strings floating on fuzzy cotton-wool clouds. Instead, whether thanks to the brilliant Vasily Petrenko’s hard work or the balances achieved within the welcoming spaces of Liverpool’s concert hall, there’s a dash of bitters to leaven the sweetness and reveal what a lavish feast of counterpoint this epic work has to offer.
Not that the strings are anything less than articulate as they unfurl the wide-spanning songs and chants. The first test is in the slow introduction, which Petrenko pulls off magnificently from barely-audible whispers to a big climax which arrives with organic inevitability. And he does it again in the wondrous heart of the Adagio. It’s hard to know what to admire more in its outer panels: the consummate clarinet solo or the accumulated wealth of detail we get to hear when strings bring the melody back greatly enriched. The first-movement pacing is varied and alert enough to make us welcome an unusual exposition repeat; a brilliant scherzo theme slackens to accommodate its lyric companion, but Petrenko makes sure not to repeat the trick in the finale, where unusual lightness and spring carry the last big tune on gilded wings.