Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2; Vocalise

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Channel
WORKS: Symphony No. 2; Vocalise
PERFORMER: Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer
Much of the presentation here celebrates Iván Fischer and his Hungarian super-band, which would be fine if the presentation were more elegant. No one who was present will ever forget their Barbican programmes of Liszt and Wagner earlier this year, and Fischer’s Rachmaninov shows similar traits: total engagement, meaningful articulation and a blend of freedom and intensity which comes from ‘the collective rubato of the whole orchestra’ as promised by the conductor from his booklet-note soapbox. When it coincides with Rachmaninov’s manic drives, the results are breathtaking: triggered by incisive repeated-note figures from the superb violas, the first-movement development remains on a knife edge until it implodes throughout (predictably, given Fischer’s preference for forward-moving nervous tension, there’s no exposition repeat here). The scherzo, too, has never sounded brighter or clearer. Yet while darker colours always carry their proper weight – the lower-string intricacies at the end of the slow movement come across with exemplary clarity and room to manoeuvre – violins and reedy upper woodwind can be on the lean side: not ideal for the big tunes, which are sometimes rushed, or the long clarinet solo of the Adagio. The Vocalise, too, a predictable bonus, lacks recorded spaciousness. For some of the necessary lushness and the occasional epic relaxation, big-boned Litton and the Royal Philharmonic come closer, for me, to true Rachmaninov style. But I’d still go a long way to hear the freshness and committed musicianship of Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra in an over-familiar score. David Nice