The best (and worst) recordings of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances

The greatest recordings on disc of the Russian composer's final orchestral masterpiece, full of vibrant colour and driving rhythms

Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy's recording of Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances is the greatest of all time

The best recording

Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)
Concertgebouw Orchestra

Decca 410 1242

Advertisement
CD_Ashkenazy_cmyk

In making a library choice, sound quality is an important factor. To enjoy this kaleidoscopic score to the full it’s essential to hear as much detail as possible. My four top choices pass this test. Sadly, therefore, the synthetic ‘hole in the middle’ stereo and coarse-sounding trumpets of the Moscow Philharmonic disbar Kyril Kondrashin’s wild and wonderful account from a top spot. Evgeny Svetlanov made two recordings, his later one much the better recorded but not a front runner, whereas those by Neeme Järvi, Vladimir Jurowski, Simon Rattle and Mariss Jansons (I prefer the first and fleeter of his two recordings) most certainly are.

Vladimir Ashkenazy’s 2018 recording with the Philharmonia is recommendable but lacks the adrenalin rush of his youthful 1982 account with the Concertgebouw version. Near the start of his conducting career, Ashkenazy struck gold with a superb set of the Rachmaninov symphonies which also included the so-called ‘Youth’ Symphony, the Isle of the Dead and the Symphonic Dances. Ashkenazy had not only the luxury of the Concertgebouw Orchestra itself but also the hall’s fabled acoustic.

This early digital recording scores highly on sound quality as Decca seemed to master the switch from analogue to digital much better than some record companies. Is the ‘Russian Soul’ often attributed to conductors from the country a myth? Listening to this red-blooded and often achingly sorrowful reading, it would appear not.

Like the composer, Ashkenazy is also an émigré. From the stuttering opening bars to that final mad sprint to the abyss, Ashkenazy achieves a remarkable balancing act between symphonic and balletic – for all its power, the music remains light on its feet. The middle waltz movement, taken at a flowing andante con moto, impresses with its uneasy fusion of melancholy, reverie and turbulence – unlike the otherwise excellent Svetlanov who, adding three minutes to Ashkenazy’s overall timing, over-eggs the pudding here.

In the devastating final bars, only Kondrashin equals Ashkenazy for edge-ofthe-seat excitement. With one exception, my four favourite recordings let the final tam-tam smash decay naturally – a masterstroke, almost literally – and, yes, I would like a second or two of tamtam reverberation, but the orchestra compensates with a seismic climactic chord. No single version can suffice, but as I must choose a winner, here it is.

Three other great recordings

Eiji Oue (conductor)
Minnesota Orchestra
Reference Recordings RR-96CD

This, from 2007, is one of much feted sound engineer Keith O Johnson’s aural masterpieces, by some distance the most spectacularly recorded version on disc; also available on vinyl, it is a hi-fi buff’s dream. However, this would count for little unless the performance warranted all the loving care lavished on it. It does, superbly. Each movement is perfectly paced, inner detail is wonderfully clear even in the most densely scored passages and in the final pages, the Japanese conductor Eiji Oue whips his magnificently responsive Minnesota Orchestra players into a veritable frenzy.

Vasily Petrenko (conductor)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Avie AV2188

Liverpool’s ‘honorary Scouser’ will be sorely missed when he heads to pastures new next year. Petrenko’s 15-year tenure at the helm of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra has seen the ensemble’s fortunes continue to rise, and their set of the Rachmaninov symphonies is arguably their finest achievement on record. This beautifully recorded 2010 disc is terrific in all respects. Every member of the cast deserves a gold star but, above all, Rob Buckland’s plangent alto saxophone solo is the most affecting I’ve heard.

Mikhail Pletnev (conductor)
Russian National Orchestra
Deutsche Grammophon E457 5982

Mikhail Pletnev can be a rather cool customer at the best of times and there are few signs of him bearing his ‘Russian soul’ here. What we get instead in this 1997 recording are architectural grip and orchestral playing of the highest order from the hand-picked players of the Russian National Orchestra, the ensemble founded by Pletnev himself in 1990. With its sense of restraint and immaculate observation to detail, this account comes closest to being Rachmaninov‘s Symphony No. 4 in all but name – which may, of course, be Pletnev’s intention. Sound quality is very good, but lacks the bloom found on the very best recordings.

And one to avoid…

Donald Johanos (conductor)
Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Hailed as a sonic wonder in its day, Donald Johanos’s 1967 Dallas Symphony recording for the Vox label is still much sought after today, even at ridiculous asking prices on vinyl. The playing is decent enough, but the mangled sound quality is some of the worst so-called hi-fi I’ve ever heard.

Advertisement

Words by Terry Williams. This article appeared in the September 2020 issue of BBC Music Magazine.