WORKS: Symphony No. 1 in D minor; Four Etudes-tableaux (orch. Respighi)
PERFORMER: BBC Welsh SO/Tadaaki Otaka
CATALOGUE NO: NI 5311 DDD
Nimbus has completed its cycle of Rachmaninov symphonies with this recording of the First. It received a disastrous premiere in 1897, which left the composer unable to tackle the symphonic medium for another ten years. It is always likely to be less popular than the two later symphonies if only because the overflowing of seamless melody, which we immediately associate with this composer, is absent. Instead, the whole work is tightly constructed around melodic fragments and motifs that seldom expand beyond their immediate confines.
There is much that is excellent in this recording. The opening theme on clarinet seems to float on bouncy string chords in breathless anticipation. The thematic references are sharply pointed, and the string sound is robust and efficiently communicative. In the first movement Tadaaki Otaka controls the ebb and flow of the hungry spasms of melody to dramatic effect. But a substantial portion of this work occupies a symphonic world that is closer to the menace of Shostakovich, or the moodiness of Sibelius than it is to the sweeping grandeur of middle-lane Rachmaninov, and here – broadly the two middle movements – the sound is poorly focused and lacking in colour. The triumph of the outer movements is, however, ample consolation.