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CD Review

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Reference 96
  • Symphonic Dances, Op. 45
  • VocaliseOp. 34 #14
  • Five Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 160
Minnesota Orchestra/Eiji Oue
Reference Recordings RR-96CD HDCD
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For superior sound quality and orchestral execution, there is perhaps no more consistent series of discs than the Minnesota/Oue partnership on Reference from the early part of the previous decade. Oue and the orchestra were adventurous and clearly challenged each other. From Copland to Ravel, they revisited the orchestra's rich traditions and explored them anew in breathtaking sonic spectaculars. This is the sixth disc I have reviewed from that partnership, and like the previous five, the overall results are something very special.

This disc is especially so. Rachmaninoff (and there are other valid spellings) has always seemed to fare well with American orchestras. Yet Oue and his team again managed to distinguish themselves from the competition. With Copland, it was a staggering take on the composer's Third Symphony. Here, it's a lush take on the Symphonic Dances, followed by a wonderful treat in Respighi's orchestrations of the Etudes-Tableaux. It's all captured in spaciously glowing sound, and played incredibly well.

Indeed, one of the best things about this recording and the others I've reviewed is that you never feel like you're listening to great sound at the expense of great playing. I listened to this disc on the worst speakers I could find, and it didn't matter. The sound was still of outstanding quality, allowing the full glory of both the music and the orchestra to shine through just about anything. And speaking of the orchestra, they are world-class, with some of the most beautiful playing I've ever heard in this music. This includes Philadelphia under the composer himself, Ormandy, and Dutoit. The playing is simply more uniform, with more character and excitement. That doesn't diminish the accomplishments of anyone previous; it simply means that in terms of overall quality, few can match this.

Oue is a marvelously intelligent conductor. Like Ormandy and Dutoit, he knows how to get an exceptional string sound. Unlike those great conductors – Charles Dutoit especially – he also knows how to be incredibly exciting when he needs to be. Phrasing this music is crucial to making it interesting. Listen to how lovingly he shapes the seemingly ubiquitous Vocalise, and be amazed. Did you actually enjoy it? Me too, and the reason is the unbelievable attention to detail and quiet intensity the piece enjoys thanks to a welcome dynamic range and tenderness that never turns soggy.

In the Symphonic Dances and Etudes, that same quest for great sound allied with a unshakable artistic vision gives those pieces the same water-like flow but with an extra jolt of intensity at the climaxes. Oue and Reference Recordings both ensure that every drop of color from Respighi's orchestrations literally rushes out of your speakers. The string playing is absolutely to die for, and the winds and brass are pretty amazing too. The whole disc has a real sense of occasion, as if the Minnesota players are having a huge amount of fun making music. That's what a great disc needs, and it happens here. Make this a cornerstone of any collection. Show it off to your friends, but whatever you do, relish every moment of a great experience. You won't regret it.

Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman

Trumpet