Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No.4; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; The Isle of the Dead; Piano Sonata No. 2

COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Nimbus
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No.4; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; The Isle of the Dead; Piano Sonata No. 2
PERFORMER: John Lill (piano); BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Tadaaki Otaka
CATALOGUE NO: NI 1761
Tadaaki Otaka charts an equatorial course between those polarities of Rachmaninov interpretation: cosmopolitan glamour and Slavic melancholy. The first he avoids, in part, because his BBC National Orchestra of Wales – good as it is – could never replicate the Philadelphia sound; the second he largely eschews due to his consistently clear-headed, unfrenzied approach to music-making. The virtues which guide these performances are honesty and common sense.

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In the company of John Lill, indefatigable but occasionally earthbound, the disadvantages of too much sobriety can be a sense of lost momentum. A great deal, though, is admirable: the rock-solid opening of the Third Piano Concerto and the astonishing bravura of its first cadenza; the playful jollity of the scherzando passages throughout, and, most beautiful of all, the ever popular slow movement of the Second Piano Concerto where Lill’s inwardness is preferable to any more public a display of emotion. Problems arise with a feeling of inhibition when the music invites a ‘go for it’ profligacy of spirit. Rather more fantasy and visceral recklessness can be found on the Ashkenazy/Previn Decca set which remains my favoured recommendation.

The First Symphony was once thought in need of special pleading. Fortunately, we can now add Otaka’s to the list of those recordings which reveal it as a great Russian work. The sound is bold and invigorating, bows attack strings with a venom or flower into full-blooded lyricism as required. Disregarding, I imagine, Richard Strauss’s advice that conductors should never smile at the brass because it only encourages them, Otaka allows a certain brashness occasionally to creep in, but it’s all infectious enough. Respighi’s masterly orchestration of four Études-tableaux is clearly prepared and executed as befits such a discovery.

In the popular Second, Otaka elicits plenty of veiled and portentous tone but his orchestra has a few problems with unanimity of phrasing and dynamics in some (very Rachmaninov) hairpin swellings through notes. The Adagio is presented with simple very moving sincerity from its wonderfully unostentatious clarinet solo through to its crowning climax.

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The Third Symphony highlights the strengths and limited (but not insignificant) deficiencies of the set as a whole. The rubato is fulsome but the strings want for extra sheen and power. There is splendid attention to detail (percussion effects especially) but a sense of over-careful articulation. Much depends on how much abandon you seek in Rachmaninov. I could do with a bit more. David Wilkins