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CD Review

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Orchestral Works

  • Caprice Bohémien, Op. 12
  • Vocalise, Op. 34 #14
  • Symphony #3, Op. 44
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
EMI 679019-2 DDD
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Vasily Petrenko and his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra continue their cycle of Sergei Rachmaninoff's orchestral works and concertos. Started on the Avie label (with the Isle of the Dead, the Symphonic Dances and the piano concertos featuring Simon Trpceski as soloist Avie AV2191 & AV2192), this new CD focuses on the 3rd Symphony and marks Petrenko's debut on EMI Classics. Interestingly, the EMI disc was (partly) recorded at the same time – September 2009 – in the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and produced by the same team as the older Avie CD already released in 2010. The transfer from an obscure to a more prestigious label reflects the success story of the award-winning young Russian conductor in another way. While one may still have to look for Vasily Petrenko's name on the Avie CD cover, EMI generously gives him equal billing with Rachmaninoff.

As with his previous Rachmaninoff, Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra deliver straightforward, elegant performances of all three works included here. Everything is neatly in place, there is plenty of energy to enjoy and Petrenko avoids the pitfall of eccentricities. Yet the catalogue isn't really short of successful Rachmaninoff recordings. Considering the 3rd Symphony: Leopold Stokowski – who conducted the 1936 premiere and recorded the work at the end of his life in 1975 -, Eugene Ormandy, Evgeny Svetlanov, André Previn, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mariss Jansons, and last but not least, the composer himself in his famous recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1939, they all have left one or more memorable readings. Fresh insights are what we expect of a new disc of course, but Petrenko's account remains rather faceless when compared with these older releases and adds very little new. Unlike his Shostakovich cycle on Naxos, neither his conducting nor the orchestral quality are distinctive enough to secure a place at the top.

This CD provides an interesting contrast, though, as it begins with one of Rachmaninoff's early orchestral pieces and ends by way of the middle-period Vocalise with one of his last and most accomplished, spanning some forty years, but reflecting also the composer's very different personal situation. The 3rd Symphony was composed partly in Switzerland, at Rachmaninoff's home on Lake Lucerne and premiered in Philadelphia. On the other hand, the so-called Caprice Bohémien, or more precisely the Capriccio on Gypsy Themes (1892-94), dates from a time when the newly graduated Rachmaninoff was still looking for his own voice. It was initially written as a piano duet before he decided to orchestrate it and while it may not be essential Rachmaninoff, it's a promising piece that can stand repeated listening. Petrenko and his Liverpool forces make a good case for it. The arresting percussion-driven opening immediately sets the pace, Petrenko coaxes plenty of "gypsy" schmaltz from the lento lugubre and the andante molto sostenuto sections with excellent string playing to boast, and finishes with an irresistibly lively dance, enough to get everybody up on their feet.

It's all the more a shame that the symphony isn't quite that successful. As often, Petrenko makes choices of tempo which could be refreshing in more experienced hands. The ideas seem to be there alright, but somehow he still lacks the flair to nail them. Flashes of bravura are handled a bit too politely and without any real fervor. The brisk tempo he initially applies on the 1st movement sounds more like rushing and merely saps the emotional span. The exposition repeat which Petrenko observes, only confirms that impression. The Adagio ma non troppo is then again more seductive than nostalgic and for all its formal beauty, the movement fails to touch. And that might be the main problem with this recording: Petrenko secures an outward perfection (as in the dynamic nuances) but hardly ever digs beneath the surface. It isn't even necessary to go back to Svetlanov's unique way with this music, which aptly transports the listener to another world, lock, stock and barrel. Ashkenazy and Jansons, too, drew a much more visceral response from their orchestras, capturing the composer's longing for what's gone with irresistible frankness. For all the passion that Rachmaninoff injected in it, Petrenko's reading remains simply too cultivated and left me cold most of the time. As for the final movement, arguably the most problematic of the symphony, it never becomes really clear in which direction Petrenko wants to go. The ending is brilliantly handled, but it feels like a long way getting there.

As the enthusiastic British critics won't fail to remind us, Vasily Petrenko has since his appointment as Principal Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 2006 considerably raised the standards of his formation. Hearing the orchestra live with maestro Petrenko at the helm confirmed them as an excellent, good-spirited ensemble, especially with superb strings. But with all that, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra still is no match for orchestras like the Philadelphia, the Concertgebouw, the London Symphony or the St. Petersburg Philharmonic – definitely not on this disc. Some of the playing sounds quite impersonal, especially the crucial woodwinds which at times remain colorless within the orchestral mass. And no matter how good, the Liverpool strings cannot possibly rival their Philadelphia colleagues in sheer brilliance and nuance, as can be heard in the old recordings with Ormandy (still a lesson in orchestral balance) and Rachmaninoff himself.

The sonics have to take part of the blame. Even the now almost 30-year-old recordings made by the Decca engineers of the Vladimir Ashkenazy/Concertgebouw Orchestra set of Rachmaninov symphonies still win hands down when it comes to clarity, detail and presence. (Not to mention, the sheer beauty and opulence of the Concertgebouw Orchestra itself). Although offering a good dynamic range, the EMI recording lacks projection and bite – and for some perverse reason, I cannot help but thinking that the Avie disc produced at the same time sounded a lot better.

All in all, not the strongest of debuts for Vasily Petrenko on EMI Classics and as this title clearly announces a new Rachmaninoff symphonies cycle, hopefully he and his Liverpool forces will have caught a second breath for the next installment.

Copyright © 2012, Marc Haegeman