Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle
Recorded live at the Barbican Hall, London on September 18-19, 2019
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: July 2021
CD No: LSO Live LSO0851 [SACD]
Duration: 59 minutes
Sir Simon Rattle launched his LSO tenure with some audacious repertoire choices but here he plays to the orchestra’s established strengths. Unabridged accounts of this Symphony were rarer than hen’s teeth until the step change associated with the André Previn era and the team’s second LP version, made in 1973. Gennady Rozhdestvensky was at the helm in 1988 for what may well have been the first commercial recording of the work to include the first-movement exposition repeat, omitted by Previn and now Rattle. LSO Live already lists a live account under Valery Gergiev (who includes it).
Neither Claudio Abbado nor Colin Davis demonstrated much interest in Rachmaninov. Whereas Sir Simon has long championed highlights of the oeuvre notwithstanding its idiomatic closeness to Tchaikovsky, a creative voice largely absent from his discography. His Berlin Philharmonic CD pairing The Bells and the Symphonic Dances (Warner Classics) was conspicuously successful. So too a relay of the Third Symphony from 2017 available on the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall. Then again, a 2011 Europakonzert performance of the Second Symphony (Euroarts) has less going for it. As immortalised on DVD, its muted soundworld presents fewer openings for the textural exploration he relishes these days. Has something been lost since he first tackled this music in Los Angeles for EMI in the mid-1980s? He has every note of the score in his head – it’s a piece he conducts from memory – but is it in his heart?
Those questions are not conclusively answered by this third recording. The sound team under Andrew Cornall – himself an old hand responsible for Vladimir Ashkenazy’s original Decca recording and more recent live Signum version – coaxes a degree of glamour from the recalcitrant Barbican acoustic but real weight of sonority is oddly lacking. In the opening movement the conductor would seem to want a more mobile, less marmoreal quality than that favoured by Previn. There are some intriguing kinks and swellings but less in the way of inexorable build. The recapitulation virtually grinds to a halt and the thrust of the lower strings at the very end is undersold. The brass may be too loud but at least we no longer get that pesky unauthorised timpani stroke Rattle used to favour (Gergiev still does).
Rattle’s ‘lissom’ approach is most successful in the outer portions of the second movement, the Scherzo element uncommonly brilliant and deft. The central fugato is carefully articulated and makes for a bigger contrast than usual, not that its capacity for menace is really followed up by either composer or interpreter. Rattle does succeed in ‘darkening’ the movement’s closing bars rather effectively.
On Previn’s last London appearance in 2015 the Adagio was marred by an uncharacteristic ensemble lapse. No such problems here. That said, I remain unconvinced that Rattle is the man for this kind of late romanticism. No complaints about Chris Richards’s clarinet solo but too much of the affection is lavished on the undergrowth. While Rachmaninov’s invention can stand leisurely pacing its long lines need a more straightforward kind of sustaining passion and flow. Rattle’s hiatuses can be Brucknerian, his textures hyper-refined. Sceptics will find this a long haul notwithstanding what is often very beautiful playing.
The Finale again feels a little sluggish, the big tune gooey with portamento. The marked speeding up for the coda garnered wild applause on the night I was in the hall yet still smacks of a certain cynicism. Digital alchemy ensures that precise unanimity is no longer threatened hereabouts. That no hint of audience presence survives either is in line with label policy. So too are the full player listing, admirable notes by Andrew Huth and idiosyncratic artwork
This handsome package has its strengths and you may warm more than I did to a sometimes interventionist, sometimes low-key interpretation that, finally, doesn’t quite add up. It should however satisfy the conductor’s many devotees.