Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Vocalise. Leopold Stokowski, National Philharmonic Orchestra. Newton Classics 8802024.

One of the advantages of being a reviewer is the joy of discovery. Of the many discs I get to audition each month, not all are interesting enough to mention at the site and only a relative few jump out and demand serious attention. Such a recording is Stokowski's Rachmaninov Third Symphony. The old maestro premiered the work in 1936, but it wasn't the hit the public expected it to be after the success of the Second Symphony. Stokowski never conducted the piece again until he recorded this performance in 1975, just two years before his death. Originally, I believe the Desmar label released it on LP, and then in 1998 EMI made it available on CD. Now we get it from Newton Classics in what appears to be the same master EMI used. So if you already have it on EMI, this one is identical.

I had never heard the recording before EMI sent it to me in '98, and it was a pleasure hearing it again recently on Newton Classics. It only takes about two minutes of listening to realize that here is something special, an unqualified recommendation with no if's, and's, or but's. The interpretation is, to say the least, highly idiosyncratic (it is Stokowski, after all), and it may not appeal to everyone grown accustomed to a more traditional approach. The Third contains none of the big, memorable themes of Rachmaninov's more overtly Romantic Second Symphony, one of the reasons it often comes off by comparison as rather humdrum and rambling. At best, say under Previn (EMI) or Ashkenazy (London), conductors have made the Third sound lush, if not always exciting. Under Stokowski, however, the Third takes on new dimensions, imbued with a passion I've never found in it before.

I've heard it said that in Stokowski's last years, when he was in his nineties, he never really had much to do with his own recordings, that the recording studio merely propped him up in front of an orchestra to wave his hands and lend his name to the production, and that technicians in a control booth later assembled the real performance. I'd say this recording puts the lie to that contention. No studio technician could have come up with the continuously challenging tempo variations, inflection changes, and rhythmic nuances that Stokowski fashions here.

The first-movement Allegro holds unlimited surprises, the slow-movement Adagio is conservative but committed, and the third-movement Allegro vivace is truly exhilarating. After his first performance of the work, Stokowski had almost forty years to think about it further. Maybe the years helped.

What's equally important, though, is the disc's excellent sonic quality, recorded by engineer Bob Auger. There is nothing of the typical studio production about it--nothing of the up-close, ultra-analytical, multi-miked, highly defined, feel-the-air-around-the-instruments characteristics so beloved of hi-fi demo enthusiasts. It merely sounds like a live orchestra. Nor is there a tremendously wide stereo separation, but, rather, the natural spread of an actual orchestra set back a short distance behind one's speakers, slightly elevated, in a conventional quarter circle. There are no sections unduly highlighted, no sudden forward placement of instruments, no holes in the sonic structure, nothing untoward in the sound at all, which in itself makes it stand out for its realism.

Of course, all of this sonic pleasantry could merely be serendipitous, a fortuitous match between my system and this particular recording. If so, lucky me. It continues to be one of the best discs I've listened to in quite a while.


1 comment:

  1. the timpany is recorded wonderfully on this cd and stoky brings it out to the max.. and unbelievable listening experience.


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