Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27, Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14
Encouraged by the success of his Second Piano Concerto, Rachmaninoff took a leave of absence from his post as chief conductor with the Imperial Opera Theatre, and in 1904 moved to Dresden with his wife and baby daughter to devote himself to full-time composition. It was no mistake that the first work he produced during this long sabbatical was the Second Symphony. The critical failure of his First Symphony, the fiasco of its premiere, had sent Rachmaninoff into analysis with a severe depression that the popularity of the Second Concerto had only partially relieved. Rachmaninoff poured his heart into the new work, but he was also meticulous in constructing it. The Second Symphony would erase the memory of the First, and prove once and for all that he could indeed compose a proper symphony.
Whether he did so or not remains a matter of some critical conjecture, but it does at least suggest the problem facing any conductor who approaches the work: should he/she emphasize the form or the content, the symphonic structure or the intensely emotional material? It will come as no surprise that the charismatic Gergiev yields totally to the Symphonyís Russian, bipolar nature. In his hands, the music seems episodic, less like a symphony than a tone poem. Time and again heíll launch a passage slowly, haltingly, then build ever so gradually to an overwhelming climax. In the first and third movements, this constant mauling eventually proves tiresome, and the lovely melody at the heart of the adagio, one of Rachmaninoffís most memorable tunes, is so emotionally wrenched, it sounds positively schmaltzy. The second and fourth movements fare no better. The scherzo is rushed, hectic, the lilting second theme stodgy and inert. In the finale, Gergiev again presses forward too quickly, making the triumphant ending seem like a series of anticlimaxes. I am usually a big fan of Gergievís, a conductor who likes taking chances, and is (at least by my reckoning) responsible for many more hits than misses. I would have expected this work to be right up his alley, but thatís definitely not the case. I could certainly praise the ever-reliable James Mallinsonís sound, but whatís the point? This performance is not recommended.
In his first recording with his new orchestra, Slatkin takes the opposite tack. This is, in fact, the least Russian-sounding reading of the symphony since Adrian Boultís early stereo version for RCA. Slatkinís tempos tend to be faster and more uniform than Gergievís, especially in the first and third movements. His sound is brighter, his textures leaner and more transparent. Though hardly inexpressive, Slatkin keeps things moving purposefully along, and resists the temptation to stop and admire the scenery. The result is a symphony that seems more kinetic, lighter on its feet, less brooding or melancholic. He also delivers a surprisingly peppy Vocalise.
It is wonderful to have the Detroit Symphony recording again, especially in such transparent sound. I might be wrong, but Iím not sure weíve heard anything from them since the tenure of Antal Dorati in the late 1980ís. In any case, they sound terrific here, and (incredibly) outmatch the London Symphony in tonal beauty and intensity of expression.
Clearly, if forced to choose between these two recordings, Iíd go with Slatkin; and anyone searching for an inexpensive, fine-sounding, well played introduction to the work need look no further. Still, I find something missing. In the end, Slatkin seems a little too well groomed for this highly charged music. His approach emphasizes the symphonic structure, but sometimes does so at the expense of its emotional content. Happily, there are other choices available. Yuri Temirkanov can be a very uneven conductor: thrillingly persuasive one night, frustratingly mannered the next. Still, itís hard to deny his authority in the music of Rachmaninoff, and his recording of the Second Symphony is perhaps his greatest achievement. It is, like Gergievís, a brooding, stormy, ultra-Romantic performance. But whereas Gergiev imposes his will on the music, Temirkanov seems to be channeling the composerís very soul. His interpretation is greatly enhanced by the playing of the St. Petersberg Philharmonic, an orchestra that has long had this music in its blood. If I had to recommend one performance of the work, this would be it.
There are, of course, other choices: Ivan Fischerís performance on Channel Classics sounds so natural and unforced, itís almost as if the music is playing itself. His magnificent Budapest Festival Orchestra plays with its usual depth of character. Andre Previnís recording with the London Symphony still sounds as compelling and beautifully played as it did when first released thirty years ago. I also have a fondness for the idiosyncratic Mikhail Pletnev, who (in this instance) is convincingly fresh, invigorating, and individual. If you still collect vinyl, Iíd urge you to search out the boxed set of the complete Rachmaninoff symphonies by a young Kurt Sanderling and the Leningrad Symphony (where he spent the war as Mravinskyís assistant). Originally released in the 1950ís on Melodyia, these same performances resurfaced in surprisingly good transfers on Everest. In brief, these are the greatest versions of the symphonies that I know. The Second is the prize of the lot, and also happens to be the first recording of the complete, uncut version of the symphony. Next time youíre in a used record shop, Iíd suggest you really delve into the ďRĒ bin. Who knows what treasures might be awaiting you there.
Enjoyment: Gergiev Slatkin
Sound Quality: Both