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Rachmaninov: Symphony No 1, Isle Of The Dead / Slatkin, Detroit

Rachmaninov / Slatkin / Detroit Symphony Orch
Release Date: 09/24/2013 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8573234   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Sergei Rachmaninov
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

RACHMANINOFF The Isle of the Dead. Symphony No. 1 Leonard Slatkin, cond; Detroit SO NAXOS 8.573234 (66:20)

Leonard Slatkin and his marvelous Detroit Symphony complete their superb Rachmaninoff symphony cycle with a spectacular First Symphony. Slatkin’s interpretations of the Second and Third symphonies were straightforward, powerful, and no-nonsense, focusing on the structure of both works and downplaying their emotional excesses. Here he takes a similar approach with the First Symphony and Read more it pays off in huge dividends.

The first movement’s introduction is grimly menacing and Slatkin makes the allegro proper’s somewhat patchwork structure seem more cohesive than it really is, with deftly chosen tempos, forward moving rhythms, and seamless transitions. The Scherzo has an infectious swagger and Slatkin paces the Larghetto appropriately—well, larghetto (i.,e., not too slow)—so as to keep the music moving along and avoid languishing on the movement’s excessive melancholy. The Finale can often sound like a hodgepodge of discarded sketches of Rimsky-Korsakov, but Slatkin does as well as anyone at molding the seemingly unrelated episodic sections into a convincing unified statement. The performance here is extremely compelling and boasts an especially powerful and ominous coda. The trombones really have a field day. All in all, this is a great performance of a work difficult to pull off, one that can stand alongside the standard-setting versions by André Previn (London Symphony Orchestra, EMI 64530) and Vladimir Ashkenazy (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Decca/London 448116 and 455798).

Rachmaninoff composed his symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead after viewing Arnold Böcklin’s painting of the same title in 1907. Considering the composer’s obsession with his own death, it is easy to understand how he would have been moved to compose a work inspired by this painting. Here Slatkin once again refuses to allow the music to wallow in its own mannerisms, choosing to make the most of its rhythmic momentum. In the opening, one can really feel the quintuple meter, so vividly depicting the gentle yet portentous sound of the oars as Charon, the ferryman, rows his boat with its newly deceased passengers across the River Styx. Throughout the work, Slatkin highlights the contrast between passages of ominous foreboding and those of serene tranquility perhaps more effectively than anyone before him. The climaxes are truly shattering, with snarling brass and pounding bass drum. Each successive statement of the Dies Irae becomes increasingly eerie. The cumulative effect is absolutely bone-chilling.

The city of Detroit may have seen better days, but the same cannot be said of its magnificent orchestra. After suffering its own financial woes a few years ago, the DSO has come back with a vengeance, sounding stronger than ever. Credit must be given to what is obviously a very productive partnership with its music director. I hope we can look forward to more Rachmaninoff from this team: say, the piano concertos and Paganini Rhapsody. Highly recommended, especially at Naxos’s budget-friendly price.

FANFARE: Merlin Patterson


This recording of the First Symphony is arguably the finest since Ashkenazy’s with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for Decca. Slatkin grinds out the opening bars with real menace, and he conceals the first movement’s episodic construction with flowing tempos and smartly managed transitions. The climax of the development section uses the glockenspiel part that seems to come and go in various recordings, but not the rest of the percussion that we find, say, with Litton on Virgin. Through it all the Detroit Symphony plays splendidly.

The crepuscular scherzo has an attractive lilt, while the Larghetto is just that: a small Largo, not one of Rachmaninov’s more hot and heavy statements in the mode of Symphony No. 2. Kudos to Slatkin for catching the movement’s gentle melancholy so well. As for the finale, it begins with plenty of the requisite panache, and culminates with a dark, powerful, and threatening coda that, if not quite as screamingly intense as Ashkenazy’s (the tempo is a bit quicker), comes as close as makes no difference. The trombones really put on a show here.

As for The Isle of the Dead, Slatkin’s performance doesn’t languish as some others do, and it’s all to the good. You really feel the five-in-a-bar rhythm in this performance, the lapping of the waves against the shore. The climaxes have tremendous impact, and the final appearance of the Dies irae sends a shiver down the spine. The work is all the more gripping for having such a strong rhythmic profile, and like the symphony it’s beautifully played (and recorded). Slatkin always has performed Rachmaninov as well as just about anyone alive today, and this cycle, quietly and with little fanfare as it has gradually appeared, sustains his reputation.

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com

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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 1 in D minor, Op. 13 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1895; Russia 
Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Conductor:  Leonard Slatkin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1909; Russia 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  2 Customer Reviews )
 One at a time March 9, 2014 By Joe S. See All My Reviews "There are some things about this CD that I really like. “Ostrov Myortvikh” or “The Isle of the Dead” is very well done. Though the piece is heavily based on the “Dies Irae” motive, it succeeds in not pounding you over the head with it. The sections in 5 were very appealing, but I was hoping Rachmaninov would have clashed the subdivisions every once in a while- if you put something divided into 2+3 over something 3+2 you could get some really cool sounds. Every once in a while there were some raw moments in the orchestra, but whether that’s the players or the orchestration I’m not sure. There’s a moment with the flute and clarinet play an extended passage in unison, and I don’t know if the weirdness is the players or Rachmaninov. The final piece on the album, Rachmaninov’s First Symphony, is an unfortunate companion to “The Isle of the Dead”. The latter was popular in Rachmaninov’s time, while the former had a disastrous premiere and Rachmaninov didn’t attempt to have it performed again in his lifetime. With that aside, though, the motivic similarities between the two works were distracting. I heard the Dies Irae EVERYWHERE in the symphony, and it made the album as a whole sound a little too homogenous for me. If you took it on its own, it might be more enjoyable. I will keep listening to this album, but probably just one piece at a time." Report Abuse
 A splendid recording of a problematic symphony October 12, 2013 By Dean Frey See All My Reviews "LIke the first two discs in the latest Naxos Rachmaninov Symphonies series, this third and final CD was recorded in Orchestra Hall, the home of the Detroit Symphony. The new disc, which includes the First Symphony and the tone poem The Isle of the Dead, features a picture of the Hall on the CD cover, and the venue provides another splendid, atmospheric recording by producer Blanton Alspaugh and the Naxos crew. Rachmaninov's First Symphony was not a success at its premiere, due to a combination of his own inexperience writing orchestral music and an ill-prepared performance. A hatchet job by the influential critic Cesar Cui was a blow to the young composer's self-esteem, and kept the work out of the repertoire until after Rachmaninov's death. Leonard Slatkin mentions in a note in the CD liner that he had a special advantage in preparing a recording of this Symphony. Eugene Ormandy, who had worked closely with Rachmaninov and who made excellent recordings of the symphonies in Philadelphia in the 1970s, gave him some tips on the best ways to overcome the worst of the problems in the First Symphony. The results are impressive. Taking his cue from Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Slatkin calls on the Detroit musicians, especially the string players, to add a sonic sheen to the music which more than makes up for any difficulties in scoring or structure. The DSO sounds drop dead gorgeous when the young composer brings out the lovely melodies that will be his stock in trade for the rest of his career. But Slatkin also makes sure that the piece is taut when it needs to be, and that the music flows. He makes an excellent case for this work. Isle of the Dead is a more mature, and much more assured piece than the Symphony. It receives an strong enough performance here, though I found the symphony more memorable." Report Abuse
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