Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14.  Leonard Slatkin, Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.572458.

It is quite a feather in Naxos's cap to have so distinguished a conductor as Leonard Slatkin, now Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, recording for them. Slatkin had long been associated with RCA, EMI, and other labels, where he made over 100 fine recordings. Naxos acknowledges the present disc, one of several Slatkin has made for them over the past few years, by affording the jewel box its own slipcover, always a sign of a prestige product.

This time out, Maestro Slatkin tackles that twentieth-century holdout of old-fashioned Romanticism and mainstay of the basic repertoire, Rachmaninov's Second Symphony (1908). Above all, the Symphony demands fervor and passion, which, for better or for worse, Slatkin serves up only in brief moments of enthusiasm. Mostly, the conductor gives us a secure run-through, emphasizing the work's more lyrical elements rather than its splashier dramatics.

So the brooding first movement is just that: more meditative, thoughtful, and subdued than electrifying. Slatkin begins to hit his stride in the quicker second-movement Scherzo, though, where the temperature rises significantly from the preceding segment. Following that, the Adagio comes across with an abundance of wistful longing, and it's here that Slatkin is at his absolute best. Although his tempo is actually a touch fast for my taste, he imbues the music with an appropriate melancholy.

In the Finale, marked Allegro Vivace, Rachmaninov seemed determined to out-Tchaikovsky Tchaikovsky with a huge, theatrical production. Slatkin gives it his best shot, while maintaining some degree of decorum until the very end, where he plainly gives in to the composer's demand for plenty of juice.

I would count Slatkin's interpretation as very good, without quite reaching the intensity of, say, a Previn (EMI), a Jansons (EMI), or a Rozhdestvensky (Regis). As a fill-up, we find Rachmaninov's Vocalise, also well rendered.

Naxos recorded the performances in Detroit's Orchestra Hall during live sessions in September of 2009, where they obtained a dynamic if not entirely transparent result. OK, I admit I'm still spoiled by all those old Mercury recordings of the Detroit Symphony from the Fifties, so wonderfully remastered some years ago on CD and SACD. By comparison, the Naxos disc sounds firm and clear but a little tame, despite a couple of solid bass whacks.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

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.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa