ALBUM TITLE: Rachmaninov
WORKS: Symphony No. 1
PERFORMER: Philharmonia Orchestra/ Vladimir Ashkenazy
CATALOGUE NO: SIGCD 484
Way back in the late 1980s, Vladimir Ashkenazy gave us a stunning and powerfully driven account of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on Decca, a performance which still holds its own as one of the benchmark versions of this compelling work. He subsequently recorded the Symphony again with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for Exton. That performance is no less passionate or dynamic than its predecessor, though in all fairness the orchestral playing isn’t quite in the same league. This third recording, taken from a concert given at the Royal Festival Hall in November 2016, is perhaps the most satisfying of all. Whereas Decca clothed the Dutch Orchestra in a gloriously reverberant acoustic, thereby obscuring some of Rachmaninov’s more intricate part-writing, the drier sound of the London concert hall brings a welcome transparency which works particularly effectively in the fleetof-foot second movement.
Moreover, Signum’s recording engineers have achieved a near miracle in somehow creating a much warmer ambience to the sound than you would normally expect from this venue. Of course, much of this warmth derives from the wonderfully rich string sonorities of the Philharmonia who play their hearts out for Ashkenazy, especially in the powerful climaxes of the Finale. But perhaps the real strength of Ashkenazy’s interpretation lies not so much in its deeply-felt emotional intensity, but rather in the way he brings a sense of architectural integrity to music that in lesser hands can seem episodic and discursive. A good example is the second idea of the first movement, a passage which under Ashkenazy has a real sense of cohesion as its initially halting and hesitant nature grows in intensity.