Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 1 in D minor; The Isle of the Dead

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninoff
WORKS: Symphony No. 1 in D minor; The Isle of the Dead
PERFORMER: Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
CATALOGUE NO: 463 075-2
The case of Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra remains a curious one. Lacking the weight and depth of other leading Russian interpreters, and rarely striving for it, they can still bring personable and haunting aspects to bear on relatively familiar scores. This ferryman to the Isle of the Dead plies his oars with ease through viscous waters, but as the textures pile up, his craft becomes a modern jet streaming towards disaster; if only Pletnev would apply some of the breathing spaces along the way offered by master-conductor Rachmaninoff’s abbreviated but still utterly compelling recording (graced by Philadelphia strings which these Russians are still far from rivalling).


Rachmaninoff’s ever-startling First Symphony also begins from an interesting perspective – as an epic journey of Sibelius underpinned by strong accents, clear textural details and helpfully forward balancing for the winds. The lyric descending love-theme which infiltrates the entire work always has a remote, doleful beauty about it – very much in support of the proposition that this is a portrait of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – and its role in the finale’s astonishing disintegration, which has always struck me as a perfect poetic response to the later stages of the novel, is well observed. Less convincing is the person of Fate that dominates the symphony; here one always feels that Pletnev is putting on the garb of tragedy rather than going for the real thing so dauntingly present in Litton’s reading (Virgin), currently out of the catalogue. His brass ensemble doesn’t help; this above all is the department that needs more work if the RNO is to aspire to the ‘superband’ status so emphatically claimed for it. David Nice