It would have been best to have placed Balakirev’s Russia first (as in the concerts) for very little can follow Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony. The Balakirev (1864/1907) is hardly distinguished as a piece, yet it is pleasing and likeable, and is given here with sensitivity and unforced devotion, the numerous folksongs (that gave such unstinting service to Russian composers during the nineteenth-century) adding soul to the music.
One of Rachmaninov’s great masterpieces, the Third Symphony (1936) was written for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Stokowski conducted the first performance, and then the composer recorded it in 1938 with the same forces, and Stokowski’s successor as music director Eugene Ormandy (he had a 44-year tenure and was also a Rachmaninov associate) set down an excellent version some years later.
Valery Gergiev and the LSO have Rachmaninov 3’s measure, music that is powerful, emotional, beautiful, energised and volatile, all revealed in a quite fabulous orchestration that is sophisticated, subtle and kaleidoscopic, everything perfectly judged and so imaginative. It’s a very special piece.
The first movement is unfolded spaciously by Gergiev and very consciously sounded in terms of timbre and balance, with much play made of the music’s quotient for bittersweet nostalgia. It’s not until after the exposition (here repeated, which neither the composer nor Ormandy observe) that Gergiev begins to explore the music’s many thrills and impassioned eruptions, all the time quite individuality moulded and with largesse. Time and again it’s good that the recording makes explicit Gergiev’s use of antiphonal violins and left-positioned double basses. As throughout, there are discriminating contributions from woodwinds and strings.
With the exquisiteness of the wonderful slow movement Gergiev and the LSO bring out the music’s romance and regret (and there is a lovely opening horn solo from Katy Woolley) and when the dazzling middle section arrives it is given with virtuosity and precision, as the music demands. The Finale too is unrushed, as it needs to be (Ormandy and Paavo Berglund are just-so, too), Such a trenchant approach does not preclude lightness of touch; and if the slower sections rhapsodise too luxuriantly then the fugue is really made to belong and is given razor-sharp articulation (divided violins coming into their own). There have been wilder accounts of the coda (Paul Kletzki, for example) – although Adam Walker’s flute solo leading up to it is a thing of wonder – but Gergiev’s dash, if lacking desperation, is not quite fitting of his view of the Symphony overall but this is then contradicted by the big rallentando he places over the final few bars – and quite effectively.
I still hold firm that André Previn’s first recording of Rachmaninov 3 (originally RCA) is the one to have – his re-make for EMI, also LSO, didn’t quite emulate it – but there are other fine versions out there, and the music itself is just superb and open to much interpretation. I am certainly pleased to have this one from Gergiev, notable for its spaciousness, poise and integrity. Made tangible is these performers’ sincere consideration for the composer’s depth of feeling and his sheer mastery of getting it onto the page with such personality and proficiency. Applause after both works is rightly excised.