Album review: An aura of orchestral mastery – Terrific Rachmaninoff 2 with Rattle and the LSO

Music Director Sir Simon Rattle and the LSO in performance at the Barbican. © Mark Allan

Following the ill-fated 1897 premiere of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 (1895), it took the composer more than a decade before he was ready to present the audiences with another symphonic endeavour.

Conducted by the composer, the February 1908 first performance of Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-08) was a resounding success. Since its premiere, the symphony has become a staple of the repertoire, both in the concert hall and on record. Over the years, the London Symphony Orchestra has played the music for microphones on several occasions, including the famous 1973 EMI take with André Previn, and, most recently, a 2010 recording with Valery Gergiev for the orchestra’s house label, LSO Live.

As for LSO Music Director Sir Simon Rattle, there are two forays into Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony found in his back catalogue; a 1984 EMI audio recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and a 2011 video take with the Berliner Philharmoniker on EuroArts.

On September 18 and 19, as a part of their 2019/2020 season opening concert series, Rattle and the LSO gave two concert performances of Rachmaninoff Second Symphony at their Barbican home, coupled with Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 (1878-81) with Emanuel Ax as soloist. Recorded in conjunction with the Barbican performances, the Rachmaninoff symphony is now given a SACD outing on LSO Live.

And it is a fine outing indeed. The fifty-minute score opens with an extended largo introduction, a dark-hued orchestral canvas establishing the symphony’s brooding motto. Clad in exquisite sonorities by the LSO with Rattle, the opening bears an aura of orchestral mastery, as the introduction is unraveled by the large symphonic ensemble.

The main body of the first movement, an allegro moderato, cast in modified sonata form, builds up to a huge orchestral tableau, abundant with symphonic colour. Scored for triple winds and brass, with full string section, augmented by timpani and percussion, the symphony is a splendid affair, as if tailor-made for displaying the full spectrum of the LSO sound.

Balancing the overall architectural plan of the movement, Rattle and the orchestra skip the exposition repeat. Even so, the first movement clocks at nineteen minutes. Yet, thanks to Rattle’s sensitive pacing, combined with the top-class orchestral playing by the LSO musicians, the movement comes off tremendously well, yielding to a wonderful orchestral experience.

The allegro molto second movement serves as the symphony’s scherzo, without being one, strictly speaking. While the formal scheme checks out, the music is written in 2/2 instead of triple meter, typically associated with a scherzo proper. Nevertheless, due to its poised, almost demonic character, the movement bears family relationship with Mahler’s Totentanz scherzi, in terms of emotional intensity and vehement orchestral dramaturgy.

In his second movement, Rachmaninoff’s key idee fixe, the Dies irae plainchant makes its return, serving as the main source for the melodic material. In contrast to the composer’s straightforward quotations of the motive in his First Symphony, Rachmaninoff weaves the Dies irae into the musical fabric in more elaborate ways, to a staggering effect.

Mixing the steadfast and the ominous together into an ambivalent whole, Rachmaninoff conjures a musical tableau of compelling intensity. Bearing both cinematic flair and quasi psycho-analytic introspection, the second movement is a terrific journey into the shadows of the night, one fabulously conveyed by the LSO and Rattle.

Be it those dexterous strings or colourful winds, interwoven with fabulous brass choirs and sharp, muted horns, not forgetting the key contribution of percussion, the second movement is a feast of sonority and phrasing.

The symphonic twilight resumes into the adagio third movement, with repercussions from the symphony’s dark-hued opening. Clad in unfathomable yearning and nostalgia, the solo clarinet introduces the main theme, developed by the full orchestra. In the movement’s undercurrents, distant rumour of a nocturnal phantasmagoria is heard, as Rachmaninoff introduces yet another variation of the Dies irae into the fabric.

A terrific sonic essay, the LSO performance of the third movement is an admirable one, awash with astounding sonics and ever beautifully shaped instrumental lines. Well balanced by Rattle, the movement is clad in raiments of deep colour and sublime orchestral glow.

Rachmaninoff’s finale picks up the ambivalent mood of the second movement. Perhaps akin to the finale of Schubert’s Great Symphony in C major (1825-28), the music evokes an image of a protagonist riding proudly into inevitable ruin, carrying bittersweet memories from the previous movements.

As ever with Rachmaninoff, the lyrical and the sardonic are interwoven into shatteringly intense musical narrative, awash with gorgeous orchestral colours and heart-wrenching drama. The recurring opening fanfare escorts the protagonist ever deeper into the pitch-black shadows of an incessant musical vortex. After much turbulence, a tour-de-force coda breaks free from the epicenter of the symphonic storm, to bring the music to its resounding close.

A powerhouse performance from the orchestra and Rattle, the fourth movement is rooted in formidable symphonic dramaturgy. An astounding journey, the new recording provides an insightfully dramatic take of the symphony. The orchestral sound is captured with focused intensity by the LSO Live team, resulting in a rewarding aural experience. A fine addition to the discography.

London Symphony Orchestra

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-08)

Recorded at the Barbican Hall, September 2019

LSO Live LSO0851 (2021), 1 SACD

© Jari Kallio 

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