Rachmaninov: Complete Symphonies and Orchestral Works

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Exton
WORKS: Complete Symphonies and Orchestral Works
PERFORMER: Sydney Symphony/Vladimir Ashkenazy
CATALOGUE NO: EXCL-00018

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Lucky Sydney, first of all, for luring a conductor now so assured in technique, a master of free and easy movement, yet also a great artist who clearly still loves this music. Vladimir Ashkenazy’s years in Australia will perhaps bring the city’s perfectly good orchestra up to top-league international standard.

At the moment, though, it has some long way to go. You might well ask why an interpreter who has already left us compelling documents of orchestral Rachmaninov with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra should wish to record most of these works a second time with a lesser band. 

Let’s get the minuses out of the way first. Clearly the Sydney strings, recorded up front in the unflattering concert hall with a ruthless focus that makes them sound like a second-rank American orchestra of the 1940s, are not going to compare with Amsterdam – nor Philadelphia, for whose great ensemble, of course, Rachmaninov tailored his last two orchestral works.

The violins’ exposed climb to the heights in the Third Symphony’s slow movement and the transfigured remembrance of the youthful ‘vengeance’ motif calming the first of the Symphonic Dances lack respective sheen and depth. Though the first trumpet is strikingly bright and the oboes launch the Third Symphony’s Allegro moderato sensitively, few of the principals are really up to scratch; Ashkenazy must have been especially disappointed with his first clarinet in the Second Symphony’s Adagio.

Yet there is an advantage to hearing a leaner account of that magnificent epic; and Ashkenazy’s pacing of it makes us welcome the first-movement repeat. Horns, both stopped and open, lend urgency to dramatic moments, though it’s a pity the colours aren’t dark enough for the First Symphony. 

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The shorter works, with the exception of a scrawny Vocalise, brim with character, and I was delighted to hear Ashkenazy, who knows the Etudes Tableaux so well as a pianist, espousing Respighi’s quirky arrangements of five of them. It’s a shame, though, that the purist brief ruled out perhaps the greatest masterpiece, the ‘Choral Symphony’ The Bells. You can have that, along with the other works of genius, on a three-CD Decca set which is much more of a bargain than this handsomely-presented newcomer. David Nice