Rachmaninov: The Isle of the Dead; The Rock; Prince Rostislav; Scherzo in D minor; Caprice bohémien

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2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: The Isle of the Dead; The Rock; Prince Rostislav; Scherzo in D minor; Caprice bohémien
PERFORMER: Russian State SO/Valery Polyansky
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10104
Until now, Rachmaninov’s shorter orchestral works have invariably had to share discs with the big symphonies – though the one masterpiece among them from his full maturity, The Isle of the Dead, has intensity enough to stand alone. It demands something like the drive of Rachmaninov the conductor, in his much-cut but always compelling 1929 recording, or the slower burn of more recent successes. Sadly, especially after so promising a sequence, Polyansky fails to deliver. More ox-cart than Charon’s ferry, his funeral vehicle trundles along without the necessary quickenings of pulse or climactic horrors, and the wraith-like first violin descants are lamentable in the wrong sense. The recording, oddly variable throughout the disc, exposes a relative thinness of tone in this of all works.

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Polyansky’s Russian players sound like a different orchestra in the caprices of Rachmaninov’s precocious youth. It was a clever idea to insert the Scherzo’s heavy-footed impersonation of Mendelssohn’s Puck (not bad for a 15-year-old; Mendelssohn would have applauded). Tchaikovskian gloom is otherwise the keynote, even in the long slow section of the Caprice bohémien, where this team sounds more poster-paint bright than ever before in the swaggering tziganery of the final sequence. The despair is appropriately veiled throughout the riverscape of Prince Rostislav and the winter night of The Rock, where Rachmaninov’s secret programme of a Chekhov short story – disillusioned middle age meets sparkling, optimistic youthfulness – is beautifully complemented by Chandos’s haunting cover photo. David Nice