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

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Symphony No. 1 in D minor; The Isle of the Dead
PERFORMER: St Petersburg PO/Mariss Jansons
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 56754 2
The catastrophe that was the premiere of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony cast a shadow over the whole of the composer’s life. The conductor, Glazunov, was reputedly drunk, and the performance so dispirited the 23-year-old Rachmaninov – let alone the public and critics – that he fled the hall as the last bars resounded only to spend the next couple of years in severe depression. Forbidding further interest in the Symphony while he was alive – and even threatening a clause in his will – the score was reconstructed from a set of orchestral parts in 1945, two years after his death, since when it has established itself as a memorable and important work in his development as a composer.

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The story comes full circle with this recording, which was made in St Petersburg’s Philharmonic Hall, the very venue of that disastrous first performance. Needless to say, that event is not reconstructed here; indeed, Jansons’s account of the work emerges as one of the most successful now before us. Ashkenazy, in his 1982 recording with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw (mid-price Decca) may plumb the darkness that pervades the orchestration with more passion, but the St Petersburg players add an authentic, plangent Russian timbre all their own.

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For all its thematic economy, the First Symphony can sprawl and become episodic, but not here:Jansons keeps a tight rein on the structural relationships and the motivic flow of its interconnected ideas. The Isle of the Dead (also the coupling on the Ashkenazy disc) displays a similar sense of shape, though, again, Ashkenazy takes the work into darker waters. Matthew Rye