Rachmaninov – Vasily Petrenko & Liverpool Phil

0 of 5 stars

Symphonic Dances, Op.45
The Isle of the Dead, Op.29
The Rock, Op.7

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko

Recorded 5 & 6 September 2008 and 23 September 2009 in Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: March 2010
Duration: 70 minutes



Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninov’s final masterpiece and one of his fieriest and most-sophisticated pieces, comes first on this release. (Chronological order would have been preferable.) Vasily Petrenko slightly misjudges the tempo of the first movement, not fully heeding the composer’s Non allegro marking – ‘not fast’ should really mean something – and the result is just a little headlong despite the pin-point detailing. Come the rapturous saxophone-led middle section, Petrenko needs to indulge a marked slowing to what is now a well-judged speed, and which shows the Liverpool Philharmonic’s winds to be expressive and sensitive, and the strings seductive. Yet there’s an emotional gap, not enough anxiety in the faster music and short on sorrow in the slower; furthermore, the fully scored sections are just a little noisy and forced (and played too loud in this acoustic), rather doing a disservice to Rachmaninov’s refinement, something so innately delivered by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (for whom Symphonic Dances was written) in their classic and unbeatable recording from 1960.

Which is not to deny Petrenko, and other conductors, their view of the music; it is simply that Ormandy and his great orchestra can claim definitiveness on this occasion. That said, Petrenko’s flexible way with the second-movement waltz is rather seductive, suitably dark, and building to an intense outpouring and a spectral, played-with poised envoi. But did the conductor require there to be so few seconds between it and the first movement? What would have worked well in a concert here sounds abrupt given the all-too-clear edit from one take to another – an attempt at continuity upset by a patch. The break before the finale is better managed, the performers not quite sizzling enough in the movement’s early stages but sustaining well the extended expanse of the middle section and gathering well for the sustained frenzy of the close, Petrenko applying the brakes judiciously for the Orthodox chant passage. But the very end disappoints. If a held-over gong-stroke is going to complete the work – it is not marked in the score but a tenuto is signalled in the two-piano version and some conductors take this as their cue for the gong to ‘remain’ (but Ormandy is not one of them) – then it needs to be louder and the diminuendo steeper and longer than it is here and for there to be a distinct chill in the air come the Last Trump. A good performance, then, full of good intentions and imagination, without quite adding up.

With recording quality that is a little diffuse in an acoustic that seems to require playing to be less-fortissimo than is sometimes the case here, it is the ambient The Isle of the Dead that comes of strongly, music less reliant on scrupulous textures and balancing (although it receives such attention) the rather claustrophobic sound now more suitable than for Symphonic Dances. Indeed Petrenko and his musicians pull-off a performance of considerable gravitational pull, throbbing with anguish, haunting in its lonely despair, expanding to a reading of considerable emotional punch and unrelenting gloom; any light and shade is but a passing fancy in such an oppressed atmosphere.

For The Isle of the Dead alone this release is worth considering, and there are features of Symphonic Dances that are memorable. The Rock is not quite in the same league as music, but it is certainly evocative, determinedly Russian, but not totally indicative of the composer Rachmaninov would become; nevertheless, Petrenko and his forces do it proud, but future releases from this team really need to address an acoustic that seems a little limited dynamically and in openness.

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