I was driving home from a rehearsal a couple of weeks ago and caught the tail end of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances playing on CBC Radio. Even with the sunroof open on a glorious summer day and the associated road noise, the musicality of the performance shone through. Of course, the track was still playing as I turned into my driveway. I sat for a while to hear the musicians’ names. Russian Scouse wunderkind, Vasily Petrenko and his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (he just resigned to 2015. Lucky Liverpool). The words ‘masculine’ and ‘musical’ came to my mind as I figured a way to get the news out quickly to our readers about this spectacular CD.
I’m a huge fan of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances and The Isle of the Dead, his symphonic poem of 1908. Included on the 2009 Avie release is Rachmaninov’s much earlier symphonic poem, The Rock (1893). If this is a compilation that intrigues you, buy with confidence. All three works receive performances that rank among the best, with the Symphonic Dances my firm favourite.
Russian conductors, the good ones, that is, have a very specific way of rehearsing their countryman’s music. I remember hearing of Svetlanov lecturing the LPO for half a rehearsal on the sound he required and expected for Tchaikovsky. Petrenko seems to be all bouquets and flowers in rehearsal, but he gets the same outstanding results in this Brave New World of ‘transparency and collaboration’. Oh hell, why not go the full trifecta? Yes, he’s ‘authentic’! That aside, he gets the full on rubato that eludes so many conductors in Rachmaninov’s works. The old scowl (so said, Stravinsky) often places his heart too close to his sleeve, so the rubato ends up as a pop song for Eric Carmen (Never Gonna Fall in Love Again). But, when done just right, as here, the effect is mesmerizing. An illicit love affair in the St. Regis rather than Motel 6.
Interestingly, Petrenko is bettered *ever* so slightly by orchestra and recording in a Keith Johnson/Reference Recordings/Minnesota Orchestra masterpiece (it’s on many audiophiles Top Ten Lists, mine included), but not by the conductor. Eiji Oue is moribund in comparison. Where Petrenko soars and sways, Oue is earthbound. Petrenko all the way. But, even the young Russian dynamo cannot out fox another old scowl. Fritz Reiner’s Isle of the Dead is among the greatest recordings/performances of any recorded repertoire. The 1950s Chicago virtuosos and RCA produced one of my Top Ten LPs (also brilliant on a JVC XRCD re release) — The Reiner Sound. For a conductor with such a minuscule beat and zero outward emotion, Reiner gets to the heart of this masterpiece better than anyone. And, that recording!
That said, this Avie recording is top notch — lots of air surrounding the instruments, very controlled bass, which is necessary for much of the Symphonic Dances, and great balance, which allows the sweep of the Dances and the brood of the Isle to better effect than most other recordings. Very highly recommended.
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873 – 1943)
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (35:47)
1. I Non allegro (11:38)
2. II Andante con moto (Tempo di valse) (10:03)
3. III Lento assai - Allegro vivace (14:06)
4. Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 (20:58)
5. The Rock - Fantasy, Op. 7 (13:01)
Total time: 70:09
Recorded at Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool on 5 and 6 September 2008, and 23 September 2009
Producer: John Fraser
Engineer: David A. Pigott