Symphony No. 1; Symphonic Dances
Philadelphia Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin
DG 483 9839 79:32 mins
The two deepest, most soul-searching of Rachmaninov’s purely orchestral works, and an orchestra nurtured in the ‘Rachmaninov sound’ by Stokowski and Ormandy during the composer’s lifetime: what a gift for a great interpreter of our times. You need not only a sensitivity to the special string warmth but also an ideal flexibility for the tempo rubato implied when not explicitly requested in so much of Rachmaninov’s music. Charles Dutoit, who recorded the major orchestral works with the Philadelphia in the early 1990s, didn’t have it; Nézet-Séguin does, in spades, and he’s allowed an occasional largesse which slightly holds up the pell-mell progress of the First Symphony’s fateful finale cavalcade. But it proves irresistible at the heart of the midnight reckoning in the last of the Symphonic Dances, crisp and buoyant in its outer panels until we get to the earthy quotation from the composer’s Vespers.
Nor is this conductor prone to indulgence; he knows Philadelphia strings can apply swoony portamento, but proves sparing with it, and I’ve never heard a more inward, poignant handling of the first dance’s central reverie than we get from gently meshing woodwind and later unison first violins with cellos. It’s a pity to see the CD note regurgitating the exaggerated history of the First Symphony’s premiere; it would be preferable to have more on the music itself. But every possible light, from tender to savage, is thrown on it by the interpretation, and any lack of warmth in the acoustic is amended in the glow of the playing.