RACHMANINOFF: The Isle of the Dead; Symphony No. 1 – London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vladimir Jurowski – LPO 

by | Apr 2, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

RACHMANINOFF: The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29; Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 – London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Vladimir Jurowski – LPO 0111, 64:51 (3/15/19) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Rachmaninoff himself led the premiere performance of his The Isle of the Dead (1909), based upon his reaction to a famous, 1880 painting by Arnold Boecklin, conceived for a widow, Marie Berna, who had requested of the artist “a picture to dream by.” The painting may depict Charon of Greek myth as he propels a coffin-laden boat to a steep, rocky island dotted with cypress trees.  A lone, standing figure in white appears to be the voyager to that “bourn from which no traveler returns.” Rachmaninoff sets the opening in 5/8, ostinato, in low strings, tympani, and harp, a suggestion of the oars’ movement, which recalls to some the opening of the Mahler Seventh Symphony.  The dropping phrases soon intone aspects of the ubiquitous — for Rachmaniniov — Dies Irae of the Requiem Mass.  Suddenly, in the midst of death we are in life, since the music, ¾, bursts with vehement passion and anguished nostalgia for a paradise lost. A low clarinet and tremolo strings reintroduce the mortal sequence – with the sad intonation of the violin and English horn – and the motif of ceaseless rowing to the far shore closes the work.

Jurowski (b. 1972) and the LPO, recorded 3 October 2014, create a rich, sensuous tapestry in this performance, easily equal to the fine Ashkenazy reading with the Concertgebouw Orchestra a generation ago. I have always wanted to laud the Jascha Horenstein interpretation, but the sonic patina does not have immediacy of these by Ashkenazy and Jurowski.

Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony (1897) suffered a debacle at its debut, likely attributable to ineffective preparation by conductor Alexandre Glazunov.  Despite occasional resolutions to revise the score, Rachmaninoff lost his or misplaced his copy; but the original orchestral parts resurfaced in 1945, two years after the composer’s death.  Between pioneering conductors Kirill Kondrashin and Eugene Ormandy, the music reasserted its value after 1947, and its debts to Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky – especially the latter’s penchant for counterpoint – affirm a major talent in the budding symphonist. The woodwinds of the opening Grave – Allegro ma non troppo announce those melodic fragments that economically through-compose the entire work. The oboe solo will introduce a woven theme for the violins, while a sudden, brash exclamation marks several periods of departure – including the fugue – for this labyrinthine movement.  The looping figure opens the second movement, Allegro animato, a light scherzo in a Mendelssohn mode that often characterizes Rachmaninoff’s youthful compositions. The woodwind and brass punctuations move with delicacy, as do the low basses.  The violin has pride of place in the middle section, which whirls with an energy easily traceable to Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Portrait Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff, by Kubey Rembrandt Studios

The slow movement Larghetto might nod both to Borodin and the lovely counterpart in the C Major Symphony No. 1 of Mili Balakirev. As in the opening movement, something of the Russian liturgy permeates the nostalgia in this movement, and echoes of the Dies Irae filter into the mix. While Ormandy and his Philadelphia Orchestra play the last movement, Allegro con fuoco, for its splashy monumentality, Jurowski, as he has throughout (rec. 14 December 2016), takes a more modest, chaste approach, finding nuance and subtlety in a score too often restricted to surface pyrotechnics.  The martial excitement of the first movement finds extension of moments of lofty sentiments, concluding with a tam-tam addition to a shattering coda.

Producer Andrew Walton’s contribution to these finely honed Rachmaninoff scores impresses me, this my initiation to the LPO label, as a fine complement to the series of long standing from the London Symphony Orchestra.

—Gary Lemco

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