Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1; Prince Rostislav

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Prince Rostislav
PERFORMER: Royal Scottish NO/Owain Arwel Hughes
We’re so used to seeing pictures of Rachmaninov in his later years, seemingly with a permanent scowl, that it’s hard to imagine him any other way. But he was only 18 when he wrote Prince Rostislav, a competent but unmemorable tone poem, and 22 at the time of the Symphony – a young man but also quite plainly an angry one. Hughes makes the most of this side of the work: the first subject of the first movement is full of vigour and strong accents, as is the fugue in the development section. Where he’s not so successful is in the lyrical music – the second subject of this movement and the later Larghetto need a more yielding, richer sound and greater flexibility. That’s something that Previn manages in his version – still standing up well after almost 30 years – though elsewhere the LSO can’t muster the authentic sound that comes from the USSR SO under Svetlanov. Hughes does get the RSNO brass somewhere near the wide vibrato and in-your-face delivery that characterised the Russian orchestras of the past, particularly when the trombone and horn sections open up, and he’s extremely colourfully recorded, with real bite and focus in the strings. This gives an extra kick to his propulsive finale, but he can’t equal Ashkenazy’s incandescent reading with the Concertgebouw: it may not be Russian, but he is, and he instinctively follows the flow of the music through the whole work, whether in tough moments or tender. And it’s a two-CD bargain-priced set, with the other two symphonies. Martin Cotton