RACHMANINOFF Symphonies: Nos. 1–3. Isle of the Dead. The Rock. Symphonic Dances. The Bells.1 Spring.2 3 Russian Songs3 • Charles Dutoit, cond; 1Alexandrina Pendachanska (sop); 1Kaludi Kaludov (ten); 1,2Sergei Leiferkus (bar); Philadelphia O;Read more1,2,3Philadelphia Choral Arts Society • NEWTON 8802021 (4 CDs: 278:32)
These are the Rachmaninoff recordings Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra made for Decca in 1991–93, originally issued on separate discs and combined here in a budget-priced set by the relatively new reissue label Newton Classics. Newton appears to be operating much like Brilliant Classics, licensing and repackaging material from major labels. Dutoit’s survey included the three symphonies and the other major orchestral works (of compositions with opus number, only the Caprice bohémien is omitted), plus the three works for chorus and orchestra.
Dutoit’s Rachmaninoff got mixed reviews when first released; Fanfare’s James Miller (15:6) and James H. North (17:6, 18:2, and 19:1), for example, complained about the sound quality Decca got in Philadelphia’s Memorial Hall, and North in particular commented that by the early 1990s the Philadelphia was Muti’s orchestra and no longer Ormandy’s, having lost much of the fabled “Philadelphia sound” that had been so well suited to Rachmaninoff’s music.
I find these criticisms to be true of some items more than others. The sound of the orchestra is certainly wrong for the First Symphony, but this may be more Dutoit’s problem than either the players’ or Decca’s; the performance lacks the fire and commitment of Ormandy’s Columbia version, and this is a piece that requires both. Dutoit’s third movement is too slow, and fails to cohere at this tempo.
The Second Symphony was the last to be recorded, and as North observed, seems to benefit more than the others from something like the “Philadelphia sound,” with its richness in the string section. In fact, according to the master personnel list in John Ardoin’s 1999 Philadelphia Orchestra commemorative volume, at least three dozen members in 1993 had been in the orchestra when Ormandy made his final recordings of the symphonies (and his only one of the First) between 1966 and 1973, so there must have been some institutional memory at work. Moreover, this is a fine reading very much in the Ormandy mold, expressive but never overstated, with an energetic but flexible Scherzo. Longtime principal clarinetist Anthony Gigliotti (presuming that he is the player of the third-movement solo) sounds as lovely as I’ve ever heard him. Tempos are well judged; listen, for example, to the natural unfolding of the introduction, and the transition into the first-movement Allegro. The only real misfire is Dutoit’s retention of the damnable timpani thwack Ormandy had unaccountably added to the first movement’s final note.
The Third, played with exposition repeat, is leaner-sounding than the Second, but that’s actually an asset in this score. Overall, the symphony is well played, but Dutoit’s interpretation is too episodic and his first movement too tight-reined; there are also some odd recorded balances.
Of the remaining orchestral works, the Symphonic Dances are the most successful; the sound has real impact, and Dutoit’s tempos are well calibrated throughout. The solo woodwinds (including the uncredited saxophone solo) are exquisite, as could be expected from this orchestra, for which the dances were written. Also very fine is The Rock, which benefits from a fairly fleet reading that minimizes the effect of excessive repetition. The Isle of the Dead is less good, suffering from an inflexible performance and from curiously opaque sound.
The disc of choral-orchestral music is the most consistently fine of the four. The Bells is one of the best-sounding performances in the set, and the music seems to unfold naturally at Dutoit’s tempos. The soloists are all strong, although soprano Alexandrina Pendachanska has a tremulous vibrato that will bother some listeners. Sergei Leiferkus is superb, and one couldn’t tell from the finished recording that his part was dubbed in after the rest of the performance was recorded! Dutoit’s Spring may be the finest ever recorded, again featuring an ideal contribution from Leiferkus. The Three Russian Songs are less successful; Ormandy had a better feel for this music than Dutoit, although his version is in English.
Newton does not supply texts, and the timings listed on the back are consistently short. There are superior versions of most of these works (see my comments in my review of Ashkenazy’s set in Fanfare 34:3), but this set is a good, inexpensive way to acquire most of Rachmaninoff’s music for orchestra in performances ranging from adequate to outstanding.
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