This is a very impressive programme of Rachmaninov’s most important orchestral works outside the Symphonies: performances distinguished by expressive warmth, an intense sense of conviction and very fine playing from the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. The perennial danger with The Isle of the Dead, cast so much in the one slowish tempo and one sombre mood, is monotony; but Andrew Litton’s shaping of it in huge, organic paragraphs of mounting and then relaxing tension is utterly convincing and inherently dramatic. The brooding atmosphere is very powerfully conveyed.
He finds plenty of drama, too, in the Symphonic Dances – and though the dance aspect is never underplayed, this is a very symphonic reading of Rachmaninov’s last work. Above all Litton projects the finale as a furious contest between light and dark, good and evil, as suggested by Rachmaninov’s deployment of the Dies Irae chant: I’m pretty sure the composer would have approved of this gutsy and exciting reading, and the other movements come off with equal vividness. The Tempo di valse of the middle movement receives a very beguiling interpretation, with excellent playing from the solo saxophonist. Even the early nature-poem The Rock sounds a more interesting piece than in most rival performances, and Litton displays the sure touch of Rachmaninov’s scoring even at an early age, just out of the conservatory. I did wonder, a couple of times, if the timpanist and bass drummer weren’t having a little too much fun in the Symphonic Dances, but their forceful contributions seem of a piece with Litton’s highly dynamic view of the work. All in all, a splendid disc – superb sound, too.