RACHMANINOV: Symphonic Dances, Op. 45; The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29; The Rock, Op. 7 – Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko – Avie AV2188, 70:09 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
Vasily Petrenko (b. 1976) assumed the Principal Conductorship of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2006 and Chief Conductorship in 2009, a post he will maintain until 2015. A pupil of Mariss Jansons, Yuri Termirkanov, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Petrenko obviously relishes his Russians, of whom Rachmaninov (rec. 5-6 September 2008 and 23 September 2009) offers colorful and splashy possibilities.
The 1941 Symphonic Dances correspond to a loose program entitled “Noon,” “Evening,” and “Midnight” – each indicative of a rite of passage. Along with the varied colors of the opening Non allegro first movement, we can discern Petrenko’s guttural mumblings to his ensemble. The huge battery, supported by piano, alto saxophone, glockenspiel, and harp, ring out with firm staccato chords and tympanic chords, even echoes of both the ubiquitous Dies Irae of the Requiem Mass and the composer’s own Op. 13 First Symphony. Discordant fanfares and swirling figures announce the Tempo di valse, abetted by a solo violin (Thelma Handy, leader) that droops with the stuttering, haunted melody, taken quite slowly by Petrenko, a tempo some may find mannered. Some good trills and sinewy rills from the woodwinds, the flute swooping through the strings. Autumnally sensuous and bright sonorities compete most graciously, but my favorite rendition remains the Eugene Goossens inscription for Everest. The Dies Irae – as both doxology and horrid intimation of death – pervades the last section, one of Rachmaninov’s more diabolically Lisztian moments. The quiet section alludes to The Isle of the Dead. Petrenko emphasizes the music’s lusty perverse liturgy, making of Rachmaninov a kin to Mussorgsky.
Conductors like Serge Koussevitzky, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Jascha Horenstein, and Evgeny Svetlanov have had great success with Rachmaninov’s 1908 tone-poem after Boecklin, its depiction of Charon’s five-note gondola ride across the Styx. Petrenko plays the work broadly for its darkly-hued beauty, its almost oriental melancholy, provided by an arsenal of fine scoring for the flutes, oboe, horn, and bassoon, supported by deep colors in the violas and bass drum. The impassioned middle section conveys that divine fire in Rachmaninov, a sweltering intensity that elicits Petrenko’s own singing to help his inflamed strings. Much of the rhythmic energy, by the way, can be traced to the soul’s struggles in the Richard Strauss Death and Transfiguration.
The Crag (1893) takes its inspiration from a Lermontiv lyric and a short story by Anton Chekhov, a tale of spurned love at a roadside inn on Christmas Eve. The string, horn, harp, and flute coloration immediately appealed to Taneyev and Tchaikovsky, the latter of whom wished to perform it on his 1893 tour. The main melody is one of those wonders that appeals to the folk element heard in Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. A frenzied dance ensues and then dashed hopes, and the music concludes in gloomy emotional resignation, all well done.