Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Symphonic Dances. Leonard Slatkin, Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.573051.

Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) completed his Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 in 1936. It would be his last symphony. These days, we see it as something of a transition for the composer, being less overtly Romantic than his Symphony No. 2, Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3, or the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The Third Symphony is also more concise than his previous works, pointing toward the greater modernity he would reluctantly adopt. Still, it is most definitely Russian in flavor, especially noticeable in the finale’s dance rhythms, and surely it is still Romantic in spirit. Leopold Stokowski conducted the Third Symphony’s premiere in 1936 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Stokowski’s much-later recording of it for EMI with the London Symphony is still the one to own. Nevertheless, this new rendering from Naxos with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is no slouch.

The Third Symphony received an odd reception at first. Critics thought that it was still too Romantic in nature, that the composer had never gone beyond the Romantic period, beyond the Second Symphony or the Second and Third Piano Concertos. The public at large, on the other hand, found the Third too modern and not Romantic enough. They expected more of the lush, spacious tunes found in the aforementioned works. Poor Rachmaninov: He couldn’t win for losing. I suppose that battle continues to this day; most critics expect modern composers to produce new, imaginative, innovative material, and many in the public just want something they can whistle on their way home from the concert hall.

Another unusual feature about the Third Symphony is that Rachmaninov wrote it in only three movements. However, the second movement is really a combed Adagio and scherzo, so maybe that gives the work a traditional four-movement arrangement after all. The first-movement Allegro holds many surprises, the two-part Adagio is conservative but committed, and the third-movement Allegro vivace is exhilarating.

Maestro Slatkin catches most of the passion and drama of the first movement while sustaining its lyrical qualities at the same time. He does not linger on or draw out the movement as much as Stokowski did, preferring to step along at a fairly quick gait. Regardless, the movement never seems short of breath, and Slatkin does emphasize the big themes with a gracious hand, making them appear as broadly lyrical as ever.

In the second movement Adagio, Slatkin slows down appropriately and takes his time defining the music’s poetic features. When an allegro vivace section breaks out, Slatkin handles it with a zesty good humor before things settle back to the sweetness of the opening.

Then Slatkin concludes the symphony with all the dash and élan the finale requires. Some conductors allow the movement to sink into the sentimentality of a Hollywood epic, but Slatkin ends it in a straightforward blaze of glory, the veiled Dies irae theme sounding appropriately ominous and resplendently optimistic at the same time.

As a companion piece, the disc includes Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, written in 1940 and among the composer’s last works. Slatkin pulls this quasi-symphony off pretty well, too, but unfortunately for him he has stiff competition from the justly celebrated Reference Recordings disc with Maestro Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra. That recording is so overwhelming colossal, it tends to dwarf everything that comes up against it. Be that as it may, Slatkin brings a nobility and dignity to the score that I often find lacking in other recordings, the conductor ending the piece on a triumphant note, this time with the Dies irae (again) hardly disguised. In all, we get fine, grand, bold, powerful, poetic results from Slatkin and his Detroit forces in both the Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances.

The Detroit Symphony was one of the stars of early stereo in the late Fifties and early Sixties, thanks to their participation in a number of fine recordings on Mercury Living Presence. This time out, Naxos recorded the music at the Detroit Symphony’s home, Orchestra Hall, in 2011-2012, and the orchestra’s star still shines. Interestingly, though, while the new Naxos digital recording is good, it is not really an improvement over the old Mercurys, which hold up to this day as some of the finest recordings you can find.

Anyway, the Naxos sound has fitting power and strong impact, with a reasonably wide dynamic range. It’s also ultrasmooth, with a mild resonance providing a warm glow around the music. Midrange transparency suffers slightly (especially compared to those old Mercury discs), but it remains pleasing all the same. Bass extension is taut and deep; and even though highs can seem at times a tad soft, they show good extension when necessary. What’s more, the left-to-right stereo spread sounds impressive, with a decent localization of instruments and a modest orchestral depth.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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