Rachmaninov – Symphony No. 2

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Symphony No. 2; Vocalise
PERFORMER: Detroit SO/Leonard Slatkin
CATALOGUE NO: 8.572458

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Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony is both one of his most expansive works and one of his most dramatic, as became evident to many listeners with André Previn’s 1973 EMI recording with the LSO, the first made of the Symphony without cuts (though without the first movement repeat).

Here now are two accounts which, like Previn’s, respect Rachmaninov’s Second as a well-structured symphonic work, rather than the emotional drama conductors such as Yevgeny Svetlanov (on Warner) – not without reason – have interpreted it.

After Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic’s atmospheric accounts of Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead and the First Symphony, one might have expected theirs to be the most special of the two. But in the event it was Leonard Slatkin’s live performance with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra which really held attention.

Slatkin’s interpretations have often been dry and uninspiring, but here is a performance warmed by musicians who clearly love this symphony. On the whole this is a very ‘straight’ account, Slatkin only occasionally ‘point-making’ (some may find his broadening of the tempo for the slow movement’s poignant E minor theme rather mannered) but generally his tempos seem so sympathetically chosen that the music speaks eloquently. Indeed the finale’s lyrical theme, which can sound overbearing, is played with such sincere tenderness that it is genuinely touching. 

Slatkin prefaces this performance with a tenderly expressive Vocalise, which shares with the Symphony a certain meandering melodiousness. Noseda likewise pre-echoes the Symphony with the baleful bass opening of The Rock, Rachmaninov’s interpretation of Lermontov’s poem of that name (or, if Rachmaninov’s flattering ‘confession’ to Chekhov is to be believed, of the story On the road).

Usually this opening is contrasted by a vivacious flute theme, representing the feminine cloud who visits the male rock and stirs its soul; alas, Noseda’s inclination for slow tempos here conjures a lethargic cloud unlikely to stir any rock, let alone its listeners. 

The Symphony goes rather better, Noseda meticulously observing Rachmaninov’s score, including the first movement’s exposition repeat (disregarded by Slatkin and most other conductors); but compared to Slatkin’s performance, the playing seems rather calculated and lacking in affection.

Nor does Noseda share Slatkin’s knack of finding the right tempo; in the scherzo the fugue’s sudden appearance seems totally arbitrary, sounding at Noseda’s steady tempo no more than a rather academic exercise, whereas under Slatkin its proliferation of scampering lines appears like so much manic activity, only brought under control with the return of the main scherzo theme.

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Slatkin’s is not the only way to do this Symphony, but hearing his performance one is convinced that his musicians are truly inside the music emotionally. Daniel Jaffé