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CD Review

Sergei Rachmaninoff

  • Symphony #2, Op. 27
  • Vocalise, Op. 34, #14
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
Naxos 8.572458 60:43
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Mr. Robert Cummings and I both reviewed the two later installments of this excellent cycle for Classical Net, but I was not yet writing for this website when this disc hit shelves in 2010. Shortly after this disc was released, the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra went on strike, and many players featured on this disc – including Concertmistress Emmanuelle Boisvert – left the ensemble before the project was completed in 2012-2013. Given the circumstances, it's amazing that all three discs in the series are so uniformly fine, and this disc is no exception.

Music Director Leonard Slatkin deserves quite a bit of the credit. He has this music in his blood – having previously recorded these works in St. Louis for Vox – and also knows how to play his home acoustic at Orchestra Hall, Detroit. I've had the pleasure of attending the Hall my whole life, and as a Detroit native, I can personally attest that the sound that Naxos gets is true to what one would hear at a Detroit Symphony concert. Slatkin has spoken often of the unique sound that his ensemble produces; European-style richness in the strings, and assertively American brass playing. Prior to the 2010 strike, this was especially in evidence. The strings are indeed marvelous, and the brass are on exceptionally good form.

The Vocalise opens the program in beautiful fashion. Emmanuelle Boisvert spins her violin solos effortlessly, and Slatkin paces the work about perfectly. It's a piece often heard, but not generally done this well. It held my attention, which is a minor miracle. This Symphony #2 on the other hand, should captivate almost everyone. Overall ensemble is superlative, and from the very opening, one senses that this will be a great reading. The Detroit Symphony strings and winds begin the symphony even more beautifully than Previn's London Symphony forces on EMI (without quite matching the Concertgebouw's unmatched dramatic sweep on Decca). Again, the pacing feels right, with Slatkin letting the music ebb and flow easily. Climaxes turn out to be tremendously effective, because the whole orchestra seems able to make dynamic turns on a dime. I confess to never much liking the Adagio, feeling it to be too mushy. It isn't here, the music is gently but firmly pushed forward to make it feel unusually flowing while retaining the beauty within. And the Finale is full of energy and turns out to be one of the better ones on disc. The Detroit brass simply don't play like this anymore, although they continue to improve.

My praise for this disc – and for the two that followed – is anything but hometown bias. Few critics in our area have been more critical of the orchestra recently, and the same applies to Leonard Slatkin, a still-excellent musician currently making poor music in Lyon. Despite that, this team is fully capable of great results, then and now, and this is not only a highpoint in their relationship with Slatkin, but in their discography as a whole.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman

Trumpet