Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Prince Rostislav. Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Warner Classics 50999 4 09596 2 7.

Of Sergei Rachmaninov's (1873-1943) three symphonies, the Second (1907) has always since its inception received the most love, the Third (1936) its fair share, and the First (1895) the least attention. It may just reflect the appeal of the three works; the Second is by far the most Romantic and most accessible; the Third a little less so; the First the least attractive of the three for many listeners. Besides, the First had its problems from the very beginning, the premiere being a total failure by any measure, thanks to an underpowered and underprepared performance from conductor and composer Alexander Glazunov. The experience so unnerved Rachmaninov he had a nervous breakdown, and no one gave the piece another public performance until 1945, several years after the composer's death. Today, we have a number of fine recordings of the music, of which we must count Vasily Petrenko's with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic one. But it's no accident that Petrenko finishes up his recordings of the three symphonies with this one; apparently, he was no taking chances by opening the series with the First.

I confess that I can only remember hearing Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 three times in my life, all from recordings. They are Andre Previn's account with the London Symphony on EMI, Vladimir Ashkenazy's rendering with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Decca, and Mikhail Pletnev's reading with the Russian National Orchestra on DG. Of those three, Previn seems the best recorded, Ashkenazy the most exciting, and Pletnev the most lyrical. Now, we have Petrenko, who tends to combine the best of all three worlds in a well-recorded performance of passion and restraint.

The composer marks the first movement Grave--Allegro ma non troppo, meaning it should begin in a serious, even solemn manner and proceed to something a bit more up-tempo though not too much. Petrenko brings out the varied contrasts in the opening movement, from the bang-up clutter of the start, through the more-exotic moods of the middle section, to the almost-frenzied latter half, to the forceful yet essentially peaceful conclusion. Indeed, the conductor shows he has a strong control over the work's design, with its nod toward the popular orientalism of the day, something Petrenko demonstrates throughout the symphony.

The second movement is an Allegro animato, obviously a brisk, well-animated tempo. It's a relatively brief scherzo that Petrenko handles with a surprising moderation. While he doesn't whip up quite the passion that Ashkenazy does, he does keep the pressure on, varying the tempo and tone substantially enough to maintain one's interest. This is a more-nuanced interpretation than you might expect, given the material.

The third movement is a Larghetto, a somewhat slow-paced affair. The leisurely, softly lit melody is quite lovely in Petrenko's hands, maybe the highlight of the symphony. It offers hints of the great, rhapsodic sweeps of color the composer would exhibit in his later works.

Then Rachmaninov goes out with an Allegro con fuoco, literally a fast movement with fire. This ornate finale brings the symphony to a jovial conclusion, with an abundance of youthful enthusiasm from the composer, who was just in his early twenties when he wrote the music. Petrenko sensibly keeps most of the bombast under wraps and ends the piece in broad strokes, the lush tunes luminous and satisfying.

Accompanying the First Symphony (actually, preceding it) Maestro Petrenko gives us the symphonic poem Prince Rostislav. This little-heard work dates from 1891, written while Rachmaninov was still in school. It shows clearly the influence of Tchaikovsky, as we might expect of a work by a young Russian student of the time. The story involves a knight fallen in battle, lying on the bank of a river, water nymphs caressing his hair, as the dying soldier strives to call his wife and family around him. It's all very melodramatic, yet Maestro Petrenko manages to makes us feel the action in a most-sympathetic manner, and the whole thing makes a fascinating and emotionally engaging experience.

Producer Andrew Cornall and engineers Philip Siney and David Pigott made the recording in concert at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, England in 2013. A symphony hall has existed on the spot since around 1846, and the present hall since 1939. It offers a nice acoustic, with a mild resonance bringing out the richness of the orchestra. Since the engineers recorded it live, we get the occasional audience noise; otherwise, everything from the orchestra sounds fairly well articulated, well defined, and just a tad sharp and bright. Still, the slight brightness provides for plenty of detail, and it's not particularly objectionable. Frequency extremes, dynamic range, and, especially, impact are all adequate for the event. Depth and dimensionality are modest, though, so don't expect the absolute ultimate in realism, just good, clean sound from a live recording. Thankfully, there is no applause involved.


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

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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.

Mission Statement

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