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CD Review

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Collectors Edition

  • Symphony #1, Op. 13
  • Symphony #2, Op. 27
  • Symphony #3, Op. 44
  • The Rock, Op. 7
  • The Bells, Op. 35 1,2
  • The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 2
  • Symphonic Dances, Op. 45
  • Sergei Ivanovich Taneyev:
  • Cantata "John of Damascus", Op. 1 2
1 Marina Mescheriakova, soprano
1 Sergei Larin, tenor
1 Vladimir Chernov, baritone
2 Moscow State Chamber Choir
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
Deutsche Grammophon 4779505 4CDs DDD
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This reissue assembles virtually all major symphonic works of Sergei Rachmaninoff in a 4-CD box – his three symphonies but also his symphonic poems The Rock, The Isle of the Dead, the Symphonic Dances and The Bells (the youth symphony and Prince Rostislav are missing, but instead a rarity from Sergei Taneyev, his cantata John of Damascus, Op. 1, is included as a bonus) and is available at a temptingly competitive price. The discs were recorded and released separately over a time span of almost seven years by Mikhail Pletnev and his Russian National Orchestra. Starting in 1993, it contains some of the pianist-turned-conductor's earliest efforts on the rostrum.

From the beginning Pletnev received praise for his allegedly unsentimental and so-called refreshingly elegant approach to music which in the minds of many has always been synonymous with romantic excesses, mawkishness and even vulgarity. Come to think of it, I can't remember ever hearing any serious orchestra playing Rachmaninoff this way, but no matter, Pletnev with his privately funded ensemble in post-Soviet Russia was hyped to introduce us to something different. At the same time or after these recordings were produced in Moscow plenty of other Rachmaninoff discs have emerged – Mariss Jansons with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Valery Gergiev with the Mariinsky Orchestra, Andrew Litton with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and even a new set by Evgeny Svetlanov with his State Symphony Orchestra of Russia from the mid-1990s, among others. Older recordings like Svetlanov's classic accounts from the 1960's; Lorin Maazel conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, André Previn with the London Symphony Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Concertgebouw Amsterdam were made available again. So where does this leave Pletnev now?

Relistening to this set, it is clear that Pletnev had from the very start a particular sound in mind, which didn't seem to have evolved much during the years covered by this box. Even if he benefits from better recording techniques than his Soviet-era predecessors, the DG engineers never really managed to produce a totally satisfying sound in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory either – forget the short-lived 4D technique about which the present reissue is mysteriously silent. Constricted, the recordings miss clarity and detail especially in the middle register, while there is a tendency to bass heaviness on some discs. On the other hand, with its prominent but brittle violins, which seem to carry everything, the polished but timid woodwinds and the rather unremarkable brass and timpani toned down in the overall picture, the Russian National Orchestra couldn't be further away from the raw, visceral, sometimes brutal sound of the previous Soviet orchestras, as exemplified by Svetlanov, Rozhdestvensky, Kondrashin, and the likes. Yet I don't think that Pletnev's slick, icy sound does any service to Rachmaninoff at all, but that wouldn't have mattered so much if his conducting was indeed shedding a revelatory light on this familiar music.

With hindsight, what is constantly confused here is "unsentimental" with "bland", "deadpan", "lack of excitement" and "absence of tension". Rather than a search for orchestral refinement and textural clarity, we are dealing with affectation and a jarring insensitivity to phrasing and rhythmical nuances. In short, instead of being original or revelatory, he is merely eccentric without the persuasiveness to sell it. Pletnev doesn't clear away the cobwebs and sugarcoating from Rachmaninoff, as enthusiastic admirers have sometimes suggested, he rather squeezes most of the life out of him.

This was already a case in point for the 2nd Symphony, which was recorded first in the series and received at the time of its release a great deal of critical appraisal. I still need to discover why. From the start Pletnev's fluctuating tempi unhinge the sweep of the movement and his rhythmical instability downplays the polyphonic quality of this work. On the other hand, the famous Adagio featuring a downright soulless clarinet solo is delivered at a disinterestedly brisk pace, as if to avoid all possible remarks of warmth and lyricism. Pletnev also lacks the flair of chefs like Svetlanov or Jansons to handle the transitional passages in a convincing manner, while his abruptly whipped up climaxes tend to sound hectic. There is a calculated, clinical edge to this Rachmaninoff, emphasized by the recording, and it still fails to seduce, excite or move.

The 3rd Symphony, recorded in 1997, goes even further down that road. The unheard orchestral details this approach occasionally reveals, however fail to justify the now definitely drowsy tempi that Pletnev inflicts upon the first movement. The second movement drags on in much the same vein until a characteristically glittering but lightweight scherzo passage is supposed to save the day. The coupling, the Symphonic Dances, one of Rachmaninoff's most sublime orchestral pieces, are often verging on caricature in Pletnev's hands, again by what seems a total lack of affinity, or refusal to go with the musical sweep. Phrases are being stretched and pulled to breaking point, while the finale is not merely ebullient but just loud and crass.

His recording of The Bells is also very uneven and while boasting a fine trio of soloists, the Moscow State Chamber Choir is weak and sounds bizarrely unidiomatic, failing to make the necessary impact. Pletnev's own lackluster conducting reduces this cantata to an incomplete experience. One can only rush back to Kondrashin's phenomenal reading or Ashkenazy's passionate take to get an idea of the richness and depth of The Bells.

While the disc (taped in 1999) coupling the 1st Symphony with The Isle of the Dead is arguably the least disagreeable of the lot, neither works can be considered front-runners. The Isle of the Dead is played at a brisk tempo, much like the composer's recording, although Pletnev matches neither his imagination nor his sense of atmosphere. The occasional lapses in tension emphasize Pletnev's limitations as conductor, especially when confronted with a Svetlanov, who takes about 4 minutes longer, but never loses grip for a single bar and brings you on the edge of the abyss. Pletnev makes a good case for the problematic 1st Symphony, austere, grey-toned, if stripped of much of its Russian flavor by the neutral sound of the orchestra.

All in all, while the price for this box may be tempting, the performances are too uneven, mannered and oddball to justify a recommendation, especially within a well-provided market. Ashkenazy, Jansons, Maazel offer much more satisfying surveys, while Svetlanov's Rachmaninoff remains a unique experience.

Copyright © 2011, Marc Haegeman