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

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
WORKS: Symphony No. 1 in D minor; The Isle of the Dead
PERFORMER: Philadelphia Orchestra/Charles Dutoit
This youthful symphony got off to a bad start when Glazunov conducted its premiere in 1897 in a state of (according to Rachmaninov’s wife) drunkenness. Rachmaninov took years to recover from the ordeal, and the work was not heard again in his lifetime. More recently, however, it has come to be seen as a considerable achievement, characteristic of the mature composer in its subtly conceived yet grandly executed emotions.


In this respect Dutoit’s performance may be found wanting. It all depends how restrained you like your Rachmaninov, for this is a muted account, lacking that essential all-or-nothing Romantic quality. The music rarely sounds as if it is in the conductor’s soul. Local detail registers comparatively faintly and, though the playing is expert (with the strings digging into the opening Allegro vivace with a will equalled by the resilience of the brass section throughout), the overall impression is of a prosaic, insufficiently weighty reading. There are certainly a number of recordings that contain more tension and energy.


Similarly, the superbly atmospheric Isle of the Dead sounds shapeless, though nothing can mask its sense of dark and overpowering obsession. George Hall