Orchestra dell’Academia Nazionale de Santa Cecilia; Antonio Pappano
EMI 9 49462 2
“If there were a Conservatory of Music in Hell, Rachmaninoff would receive from it the first prize for this symphony.” So wrote one critic after the first symphony’s premier in 1897, for which the composer had the fondest hopes... a dismal event, due in no small part to an inebriated conductor, Alexander Glazunov, who was shamefully ill-prepared. This failure led Rachmaninov to enter a state of self-doubt and lethargy, even though he was known around the world as the composer of the Prelude in C sharp minor, opus 3. Eventually, after three months of daily treatment by Dr. Dahl, a psychiatrist and hypnotist who practiced a form of autosuggestion, his confidence returned.
Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony followed in 1907, for which the composer conducted the premier. It is unashamedly romantic. Rachmaninov was of the late Romantic Era remaining a 19th Century composer who lived and wrote well into the 20th. Even though he revolutionised nothing nor ventured beyond the established instrumentation and traditional forms, his every composition is unmistakeably Rachmaninov.
There is no shortage of fine performances available, some with cuts, beginning with the splendid Vladimir Sokoloff / Cleveland recording of 1928 but Pappano’s is at least equal to the best and in some respects better. From the opening bars there is a mood of tranquility and repose, a feeling of being... not of doing. The Scherzo still bustles but more open and less agitated. The Adagio lingers and luxuriates in the sensuality of Rachmaninov’s gorgeous score. Pappano lets them out in the finale’s allegro vivace bringing the symphony to a triumphant close. I loved it!
The performance of Lyadov’s Enchanted Lake from the same 2009 concerts in Rome is a perfect set-up for the symphony. The six minute, diaphanous impressionist water colour barely rises above pianissimo without a ripple.
EMI has also recorded Pappano conducting the four Rachmaninov concertos with the Berlin Philharmonic in Concertos One and Two and the London Symphony in Three and Four. Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is totally attuned to both the composer’s introspection and gutsy strength (Concertos 1&2 on 7488132 and 3&4 on 6405162). Andsnes has the full measure of these concertos with hand-in-glove support from Pappano and the two orchestras producing mighty performances of genuine stature captured in you-are-there sound. In a time when it seems that volume, brilliance and speed are the sole qualities sought after by audiences it is inspiring to hear superb performances in which the essence of the composer’s score is recognised and well served.
Rachmaninov’s own performances of the concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody with Stokowski and Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra, recorded from 1929 to 1941, are still available from RCA. They are, as one might deduce, definitive (616582, 2 CDs).
As an aside, in the late 1930s American audiences were asked which living composers would be played one hundred years hence. The radio audience rated Sibelius first, then Richard Strauss and in third place, Rachmaninoff (as it was spelled then).