Sunday 17 July 2016

A recording from RCO Live made in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, brings a performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony that is unsettled, stormy and full of restrained emotion

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) made cuts to many of his compositions, often feeling that they were too long or needed tightening up structurally. He did this with his Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor, written in 1927 and revised in 1941. His earlier Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor written in 1913 was again revised in 1931. Again his Symphony No.3 in A minor written in 1935 was tinkered with during 1936 with a full revision in 1938  

Whilst many, including myself, prefer the uncut version of the Second Piano Sonata it is probably the cuts that were made to his Symphony No.2 in E minor that have been the most unfortunate. It was Andre Previn when touring Russia and the Far East with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1971 who was asked by a Russian, after thanking him for the concert, why they had not played all of the symphony. It seems that they had always played the original version in Russia, the cut version being made later during the composer’s exile in the west. Following the first performance of the symphony in St. Petersburg in 1908 a critic wrote ‘After listening with unflagging attention to its four movements, one notes with surprise that the hands of the watch have moved forward 65 minutes.’

Previn had already recorded the cut version with the LSO for RCA and it was this experience that sent him looking for the original version which he eventually recorded with the same orchestra for EMI. Comparing the two, one is always struck by the beauty of the development and bridge passages that were excised. Rachmaninov had been concerned that the length of the symphony, approaching an hour, was too much for modern audiences. Now, thankfully, it is only the original that is performed.

RCO Live has just released an SACD live recording of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 in E minor with Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra 

RCO 16004

Mariss Jansons takes the brooding opening of the Largo - Allegro moderato of Rachmaninov Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27 (1907) at a slow pace, allowing the music to unfold. The listener soon finds that the tempo has subtly increased without any awareness, achieving a forward momentum and rising emotionally through some really passionate passages. It is Jansons’ fine pacing and structuring that provides a completely natural arch like form.  When the cor-anglais introduces a fast moving passage there is some particularly fine playing from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, taut in all the dynamic surges that occur, with the woodwind providing some fine moments. Jansons brings a very fine, natural orchestral rubato, finding many lovely moments, little points where he just holds back, subtly, finding a flexible tempo. He builds the music to moments of real heft and in Rachmaninov’s lovely developed passages, finds a lovely natural flow.  The RCO’s brass sound through as the music is brought to a terrific climax before falling back, so many little instrumental details showing through. Jansons finds a rumbling, unsettled passage before heading to a crisp decisive coda.

Despite the marking Allegro molto Jansons provides a steady yet flexible tempo, revealing a glistening orchestration. He is never rushed moving through some beautifully shaped string passages, always keeping shy of overly luscious textures, never sentimentalised. There is a great clarity of orchestral texture. There is a trio section that scurries ahead in contrast to the steadier pace around it.  Jansons brings a fine weight to the orchestral sound in places, with sudden fierce outbursts as the orchestra is unleashed.  When the romantic string theme returns it is allowed a little more head, more passion before a finely judged coda.

In the Adagio Jansons allows the clarinet to slowly unwind its lovely theme beautifully, set nicely within the orchestra.  There is a lovely pulse in the orchestra behind the clarinet and when the orchestra takes over the melody they are careful not to rush their fences, slowly and naturally building in strength and tempo. Jansons’ pacing never allows sentimentality to appear. There are exquisite woodwind passages as the theme is woven between them. The rubato here is terrific. Again passages that used to be cut are wonderfully developed before rising to a really fine peak. There is a lovely moment for the leader before the theme is shared around various instruments of the orchestra in a particularly fine section.  When the strings bring back the clarinet theme it is quite lovely, particularly with the brass and woodwind appearing through the texture. There is such beautifully nuanced playing right through to the magically wrought coda. 

The orchestra leaps up brilliantly in the Allegro vivace, galloping forward as if to brush aside all thoughts of melancholy and nostalgia. The music falls through some wonderfully controlled bars before being allowed to slowly build again. There is a lovely string passage revealing Tchaikovskian influences, Jansons keeping a tight reign as the music develops through some subtly quiet moments. The pulsating brass in the bass has a lovely pulse. Later Jansons allows the music to relax and fall away with a lovely woodwind passage before leaping up to bound ahead through some fine passages as the various strands are woven. There is a moment of tension with a bassoon heard before the music rises majestically with cymbal clashes and drum strokes to move quickly ahead. This conductor finds so many of the composer’s little details as the music quietens only to slowly and steadily grow to a peak, wonderfully controlled. As the music flowers into the main theme, full of confidence and forward flow, it arrives at a glorious peroration before rushing into the dynamic coda. 

This is a conductor who is fully in tune with Rachmaninov bringing a performance that is unsettled, stormy and full of restrained emotion. The SACD recording, live from the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, is finely detailed with great depth. There is no audible audience noise but applause is kept at the end. There are informative booklet notes. 

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