Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A splendid recording of a problematic symphony

From October 11, 2013:

Like the first two discs in the latest Naxos Rachmaninov Symphonies series, this third and final CD was recorded in Orchestra Hall, the home of the Detroit Symphony. The new disc, which includes the First Symphony and the tone poem The Isle of the Dead, features a picture of the Hall on the CD cover, and the venue provides another splendid, atmospheric recording by producer Blanton Alspaugh and the Naxos crew.

Rachmaninov's First Symphony was not a success at its premiere, due to a combination of his own inexperience writing orchestral music and an ill-prepared performance. A hatchet job by the influential critic Cesar Cui was a blow to the young composer's self-esteem, and kept the work out of the repertoire until after Rachmaninov's death. Leonard Slatkin mentions in a note in the CD liner that he had a special advantage in preparing a recording of this Symphony. Eugene Ormandy, who had worked closely with Rachmaninov and who made excellent recordings of the symphonies in Philadelphia in the 1970s, gave him some tips on the best ways to overcome the worst of the problems in the First Symphony.

The results are impressive. Taking his cue from Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Slatkin calls on the Detroit musicians, especially the string players, to add a sonic sheen to the music which more than makes up for any difficulties in scoring or structure. The DSO sounds drop dead gorgeous when the young composer brings out the lovely melodies that will be his stock in trade for the rest of his career. But Slatkin also makes sure that the piece is taut when it needs to be, and that the music flows. He makes an excellent case for this work.

Isle of the Dead is a more mature, and much more assured piece than the Symphony. It receives a strong enough performance here, though I found the symphony more memorable.

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