Rachmaninov
The Isle of the Dead, Op.29
Symphonic Dances, Op.45
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Recorded live in the Royal Festival Hall, London – Isle of the Dead on 8 December 2004; Symphonic Dances on 29 October 2003
CD No: LPO – 0004 [CD/SACD]
Duration: 60 minutes
Reviewed: May 2005
This is one of four releases constituting the first batch of recordings issued under the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s own banner. Unlike the London Symphony Orchestra, for “LSO Live”, the LPO is not obliged to play two concerts for any one CD, but, like the LSO, the Philharmonic does record rehearsals for use in the final editing. The LPO’s selling price of nearly double that of “LSO Live” takes into account that each release is also SACD compatible (“LSO Live” SACDs are more expensive than its CD-only issues).
Vladimir Jurowski, Music Director at Glyndebourne (where the LPO is the ‘house orchestra’), is also the LPO’s Principal Guest. Here he conducts music by Rachmaninov that is atmospheric, highly charged and deeply emotional. The Böcklin-inspired The Isle of the Dead (actually lasting 22’58”, including applause, rather than the advertised 14 minutes – that would be quick!) is given a likeable reading, one scrupulous but not brooding enough; the tension is set a little too low and the sonorities of the LPO are not dark enough. But Jurowski is alive to orchestral detail and to the drama that unfolds and he displays a commanding sweep that satisfies the music’s structure, but a lack of lugubriousness and ‘inside drama’ doesn’t paint the full picture (pun intended!).
The recording is good, albeit with a little tonal upholstering added to the Royal Festival Hall’s familiar acoustic – something both understandable and regrettable – and here not always rendering the lucidity and immediacy that is one of the Hall’s advantages. Indeed, the sound is a tad veiled, sometimes, and not dynamic enough. At 22’24”, in the silence before the applause, could not the digital-watch alarm have been edited out? This pernicious sound is not worthy of posterity.
Symphonic Dances is given a reading higher in voltage and in more focussed sound – greater consistency, in other words. It’s a splendid achievement and Jurowski is a fine judge of the first movement’s ‘Non Allegro’ marking (surely Rachmaninov warning conductors not to speed). Written for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducted the premiere in 1941 and made a recording of Symphonic Dances (in 1960) that stands as almost definitive; Jurowski’s view of the music is not dissimilar to Ormandy’s in outline. Strangely, Jurowski omits the piano’s chromatic scales (2’09”-2’16” in this performance) – although this ‘missing feature’ is one typical of Soviet recordings of Symphonic Dances. Jurowski is especially successful in this haunting account of the reflective saxophone-led middle section, all the more telling for being understated and plangent, although how beautifully the strings blossom when they take the nostalgic melody up. The ‘look-back’ coda (including a quotation from the thought-lost Symphony No.1) is eloquently realised. (What, though, in this first movement, is the low-level, ‘flickering’ interference that can be heard from 5’03” for almost a minute?)
The ‘danse macabre’ aspects of the following waltz are given with just the right amount of edge, and Jurowski’s flexible pulse never allows the music to become humdrum (which it can do). The finale is also adroitly handled between determined fire and poignant repose – before the thrilling coda, something of a ride to the abyss and involving the ‘Dies irae’ and Russian Orthodox chant. Jurowski opts to hold on to the final gong stroke (against the published score, and not done by Ormandy, although implied in the two-piano version) – does such ‘held’ extinction herald death? Worth hearing.

 

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