Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27
London Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 20-21 September 2008 in Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by: Christian Hoskins
Reviewed: May 2010
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO0677
Duration: 61 minutes
For many years, performances and recordings of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony featured cuts in all four movements (a practice that was reluctantly condoned by the composer) as well as some dubious additions to the scoring. In 1967, Paul Kletzki conducted the first complete recording of the symphony, starting a trend for the score to be played as Rachmaninov originally intended. From the 1980s, many recordings have included the first-movement exposition repeat as well. Alongside increasing fidelity to the score, however, has been a tendency for interpretations that focus on the work’s structural credentials and beauty of sound instead of its Slavic passion and drama.
As in his previous recording for Philips, Valery Gergiev presents the symphony complete, including the exposition repeat. Rather than the lush approach heard elsewhere, however, Gergiev conducts a lean and sinewy account of the score, highlighting the darkness in the music. There is even a hint of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle in the writing for stopped horns and slithering bass clarinet at Figure 14 (14’54”) in the first movement (one of the passages regularly excised in older recordings). And although Gergiev maintains fairly steady tempos, his use of rubato and shaping of phrase brings a sense of restlessness to the music, avoiding any feeling of sentimentality.
While this approach is interesting up to a point, there is also a tendency for the more lyrical and tender aspects of the music to feel undernourished, and for the faster passages to appear brusque rather than genuinely exciting. The close of the first movement verges on the brutal, not helped by an unauthorised all-too-obvious timpani stroke being added to the last note, which should be double basses alone. The scherzo is incisively played but unengaging, and while the delicate opening of the Adagio provides a sense of contrast, as a whole this movement lacks radiance and ardour. Gergiev provides a boisterous start to the finale, but the lyrical second subject comes across as overly deliberate, and the movement fails to build to the stirring conclusion heard in the recordings by Previn and Ashkenazy.
The unhelpful Barbican Hall acoustic seems to have defeated the recording team on this occasion. The sound has a firm bass presence but high frequencies suffer from a lack of transparency causing slightly dull and airless timbres on both the CD and SACD layers.