Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Also, The Rock. Alexander Dmitriev, Academic Symphony Orchestra of the St. Petersburgh Philharmonia. Cugate Classics CDC010-2.

For me (I know the phrase "for me" is redundant in a review, which is mainly opinion, anyway, but sometimes I want to emphasize that not everyone may agree with me), Rachmaninov's Second Symphony is the last great symphony of the Romantic Age in classical music.

Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) premiered his Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27, in 1908, having probably no idea that his work would someday compete in the basic classical repertoire with things his predecessor, Peter Tchaikovsky, had written. More likely, he just wanted to write a piece of music that would at least equal the success of his own Second Piano Concerto. I doubt he had any idea that his compatriot, Igor Stravinsky, would be revolutionizing the musical scene just a few years later with The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).

Of course, a lot of composers, including Rachmaninov, continued writing in the Romantic mode well after the Second Symphony, but they became fewer and farther between. In any case, I mention all this because what we need in any big Romantic work is passion, and that's where the best conductors of the music have flourished. People like Andre Previn (EMI), Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca), Eugene Ormandy (Sony), Ivan Fischer (Channel Classics), Mikhail Pletnev (DG), Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Regis), Mariss Jansons (EMI), and others more or less threw themselves into the music without distorting it, making it strong, powerful, intense, yet warm. With present recording, we have a genuine Russian conductor, Alexander Dmitriev, and a genuine Russian ensemble, the Academic Symphony Orchestra of the St. Petersburgh Philharmonia performing the piece in a 1993 recording that has to some degree weathered the test of time. Whether it competes successfully against some of the rivals I've mentioned, you'll have to judge for yourself. For me, it's a good interpretation but doesn't quite match the overt Romantic fervor of the others.

Rachmaninov's opening Largo is big and lush, with Dmitriev adding little of his own, which in this case might sound unflattering. Naturally, there are critics who believe that Rachmaninov's music is already too florid, too ornate, too overly romantic, and requires no further amping up by a conductor, a claim with which I wholly agree. However, there is still some need of an interpretation involved; otherwise, a machine, a metronome, could conduct the music.

Alexander Dmitriev
Maestro Dmitriev begins in a calm, leisurely fashion, allowing the momentum of the Largo to build without exaggeration or distortion. He develops Rachmaninov's seemingly unending flow of melodies with an even yet flexible consistency, building to each climax with a velvety touch. This does not effect a particularly exciting result, however, so listeners looking for a more red-blooded account might look elsewhere. Dmitriev's reading is more of a lyrical interpretation, which isn't a bad approach if you want to hear the full impact of the work's Romanticism.

The Scherzo needs to have plenty of zip, and Dmitriev seems a little undernourished in terms of pure adrenaline. This fast second movement still sounds fine in Dmitriev's hands, if not so electrifying as I've heard it done. Again, it's more poetic than exciting (even though he becomes more animated as the music progresses), with a well-shaped central theme.

After that we hear the beautiful Adagio, which in terms of its love interest vies with Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture for burning passion. This must be one of the high points of Romanticism, although Dmitriev and his solo clarinet player handle it in a somewhat subdued fashion. It doesn't sound quite as richly rhapsodic as it has under other conductors. Yet again the conductor goes for a more poetically beautiful reading rather than a grandly eloquent one.

The finale should be highly Romantic, too, and triumphantly heroic. Here, Maestro Dmitriev may have been saving up most of his energy. Certainly, he gives it his all, with an especially fiery opening section and a properly thrilling conclusion.

All in all, Dmitriev's recording makes a welcome addition to the catalogue of Rachmaninov performances. However, it does not displace my favored recording by Andre Previn and the London Symphony (EMI, Warner Classics), which seems to me to combine all the right elements of excitement, expressiveness, aesthetics, and high Romanticism the music requires.

The accompanying work, The Rock, was Rachmaninov's first major orchestral composition. It's a sensitive tone poem, and Dmitriev handles it so. Its contrasting light and dark, airy and weighty, tones come across vividly. Nicely done.

Producers Iris Mazur and H. Memo Rhein and recording producer Felix I. Gurdji made the album at St. Petersburg Philharmonia Hall in 1993, and B-Sharp Music & Media Solutions remastered it using 24-bit technology in 2015. The high quality of the sound pleasantly surprised me. The miking is not too close nor too distant. The stereo spread is wide (sometimes extending well beyond the far edges of the speakers), and dimensionality is good. Moreover, there is no brightness or edginess about the sonics; everything is smooth and natural, if a touch soft. Dynamics seem a tad limited, too; I was hoping for a broader range with a bit more impact. Highs appear well extended; bass not so much. Nevertheless, it's all still adequate, so these are probably just minor quibbles on my part.


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.

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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