Symphony No. 2 Vocalise
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In the wake of his First Symphony' catastrophic premiere, Rachmaninov took a decade before commencing his Second, painstakingly revising it before conducting the triumphant premiere in 1908. Although haunted, like his First, by the Dies irae chant melo
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I've heard two other recordings of this symphony: The echt-Russian Temirkanov reading that impressed me with its intensity, and the Ashkenazy recording that was notable for the way it caressed individual moments within the larger framework. Slatkin charts a third course, focusing on generating an unwavering forward momentum in each movement. This doesn't necessarily mean he's faster than the rest (though he does shave a minute off Temirkanov's already quick timing in the Scherzo); he just keeps his focus on the long line of each movement and refuses to let the symphony bog down in its own weight. Playing snippets of this new recording against either of the other two recordings above doesn't work to the newcomer's advantage; played straight through, however, Slatkin's reading ends up being more compelling than either of them. He manages to weave this sometimes sprawling work into a coherent whole, and the "rightness" and confidence of his vision, coupled with the top-shelf playing of the DSO, make this warhorse symphony sound new again. That's as good a definition of a classical-music success as I can think of, and I'm proud to add this recording to my shelf alongside the other two.
(This is a live recording, but the well-behaved audience is virtually silent until they explode after the last note. It's the perfect cap to a wonderful performance.)
Bravo! to this performance, one that I MUST give only the highest recommendation of hearing and owning if Rachmaninov is your "cup of tea".
No doubt the Russians own this music, and there are superlative versions from Jansons, Temirkanov and Byhkov that Slatkin cannot compete with for authority and power, not to mention a classic Previn reading from 1972 with the London Sym. in top form (EMI). It's a relief to report, however, that he's in good form himself and gets the orchestra to deliver a lyrical, flexible reading that's far from routine or dull. As is often the rule, the recording originates from a live concert, in the fall of 2009. The audience is all but noiseless, the performance proceeds without fluffs. I'd wish for more passion and intensity, and the lush Adagio is a bit chaste, but still, this is a very encouraging beginning to the relationship between orchestra and conductor -- at tis price, in such vibrant sound, it's heartily recommended.