RACHMANINOV: Symphony No. 1 in D Minor; The Isle of the Dead – St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Mariss JansonsEMI

by | Jul 30, 2005 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

RACHMANINOV: Symphony No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 13; The Isle of the
Dead, Op. 29 – St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Mariss Jansons

EMI Classics 5 85459 2  66:20 ****:

The adverse criticism that greeted Rachmaninov’s First Symphony (1897)
from Cesar Cui has an echo in the critical response with which Hanslick
greeted Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. In both cases, the music has
outlived its detractors. Since my own initiation into the symphony’s
rough-hewn, Russian polyphony and heroically obsessive gestures –
courtesy of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra – I have
remained a devotee, already noting the composer’s ever-present
fascination with the Dies Irae plainchant theme.

This 1998 inscription by Mariss Jansons begrudges the composer neither
virtuoso playing nor occasional histrionics, and the tympanist seems to
have a license to kill. The natural and nostalgic gestures are all
there, with their hints at Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini. Jansons,
who has been associated with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (formerly
the Leningrad Philharmonic) since 1973, urges all kinds of emotional
response from this suave instrument, his having helped hone its
discipline along with Yevgeny Mravinsky. [This is the same orchestra
featured on the three new SACDs from Water Lilly Acoustics reviewed in
our Hi-Res Section…Ed.]

The typical Russian wind sound‚ in the strings the dynamic shades that
evoke balletic figures, all manifest themselves in this high-powered
reading of a moody and introspective piece whose moments of Eastern
touches might be ascribed to the acerbic Cui himself. The Isle of the
Dead, after Boecklin’s elusive painting (at the MET Museum of Art) has
its recording history dating back to the composer’s own inscription,
then there are others by Mitropoulos, Reiner, Horenstein, and Ashkenazy
of singular note. The individual colors in this piece – after our
opening bout with the Dies Irae – center on the strings, the oboe,
flute, harp, horns and tympani, and on to the long-drawn, yearning
crescendo, until the death chant emerges victorious. Beautifully
graduated dynamics and blazing brass make me wish Mravinsky had left a
reading for comparison. Solid Rachmaninov inscriptions, if you covet

–Gary Lemco

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