Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op.3/2 [orch. Stokowski]
Symphony No.2 in E-minor, Op.27
Sinfonia of London
Recorded at the Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London on January 6-8, 2022
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: April 2023
CD No: CHANDOS CHSA 5309 [SACD]
Duration: 64 minutes
And still they come. John Wilson and his classy pick-up ensemble would now appear to be embarked on a Rachmaninov symphony series and, as is often the case with this conductor, the results are not quite what might have been expected. The team recently turned in a programme comprising a high-voltage account of the Third Symphony (albeit one overdriven in its closing stages), an unimpeachable Isle of the Dead and a ruthless-sounding Vocalise. Intelligent planning given that all three pieces were committed to disc by Rachmaninov as conductor. The main attraction this time is the Second Symphony where no such model exists. The work was first set down in abbreviated form by Nikolai Sokoloff in 1928 (digitally transferred for the Cleveland Orchestra’s 75th-anniversary limited edition); it lasts 46 minutes as opposed to the now customary 60 minutes or so.
To some degree Wilson is leapfrogging recorded precedent, returning to first principles. He takes the first-movement exposition repeat, seats the violins antiphonally and ensures that the text is purged of any bogus percussion. I was expecting him to opt for something rapid-fire, impulsive and vaguely Russian-sounding but in fact we are closer to Stokowski, Ormandy or Previn than Mikhail Pletnev in Moscow. The mood is not noticeably frenetic and, in the finale, might be thought at times dangerously relaxed. Wilson’s treatment of the big tune in which Rachmaninov breaks his mould of stepwise melodic motion, seems limper, more indulgent than Previn’s, well-observed as it is. Then again the conductor presumably wants to define sectional demarcations more clearly, as he does throughout, giving clearer shape to what is indubitably a long structure. No complaints about the playing per se with much careful attention to string sonority, now super-articulate and ‘modern’, now flecked with portamento. The finale’s tintinnabular cascade across different sections of the orchestra (sometimes cut in former days) is treated with the utmost sensitivity. It’s just that I can imagine some listeners feeling that the performance lacks the nth degree of thrust. Chandos provide a booklet note by David Fanning which reminds us that the Symphony is indeed the most protracted of Rachmaninov’s non-operatic works.
The curtain-raiser is something of a rarity, a Stokowski arrangement, once excoriated as “unashamedly vulgar” in the august pages of Gramophone and taped live by the conductor himself with the Czech Philharmonic in 1972. No doubt Wilson remembers that Stokowski was almost alone in rendering the Second Symphony uncut, or at least he did so at the Hollywood Bowl in 1946. In Kilburn 2022 the gargantuan effect of his transmogrified Prelude is ramped up by a recording of vast dynamic range. This is a score I’ve not heard for a generation and I’m not sure how seriously it should be taken. Sakari Oramo directed at least one performance with the CBSO. Wilson gives us what sounds like Mussorgsky on steroids, foregrounding Stokowski’s overused string tremolando in unembarrassed fashion while attempting to inflect the melodic line with the sort of rhetorical rubato more naturally delivered by a pianist. Once again Brian Pidgeon and his team succeed in squaring ecclesiastical resonance with closely observed detail. The quivering strings and melodramatic brass may put older listeners in mind of Decca Phase 4 and the hi-fi showrooms of yesteryear. Or perhaps that was just me remembering happier times. Recommended.