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CD Review

Sergei Rachmaninoff

  • Isle of the Dead, Op. 29
  • Symphony #1 in D minor, Op. 13
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
Naxos 8.573234 66m
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The first thing you're likely to notice about the performances on this CD is the transparency of sound. Naxos does a fine job of providing vivid sonics with excellent balance of the various instrumental sections and solo instruments, but Rachmaninov's orchestration is already rather threadbare, in the First Symphony at least, and thus allows for a good measure of transparency. Yet beyond this, I think Slatkin aims for crispness and clarity in disrobing the various layers of sound. The development section in the first movement, for example, begins with a fugal passage, where you'll hear the distinct delineation of the various string parts with utter limpidity. But is this approach, well executed as it is, such a good thing?

As most Rachmaninov mavens are aware, the First Symphony was a grand failure at its 1897 premiere. In fact, it was such a disaster that Rachmaninov lost confidence in his abilities until the 1902 appearance of his Second Piano Concerto, a work which has never since been out of the repertory. Slatkin conducts the symphony as if it still needs championing, still needs an advocate to clarify its music. He certainly succeeds in making a fine case for this still underrated work, because he also imparts a tension and spirit to the music, pointing up the plentiful dark elements and often contrasting them deftly with the work's ecstatic angelic moments, particularly in the first and third movements. He also succeeds because he draws a first-rate performance from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In my review earlier this year of Slatkin's Rachmaninov Third Symphony and Symphonic Dances (Naxos 8.573051), I also noted the splendid playing of this ensemble which must be considered among the top American orchestras.

My reference to the "dark elements" in the First Symphony has to do with Rachmaninov's use of the Dies Irae theme throughout the work. He was obsessed with it and used it often, including in the discmate here, Isle of the Dead, a work that dates to 1908. Inspired by the Arnold Böcklin painting, Isle of the Dead, it makes a logical pairing with the Symphony. Once again Slatkin clarifies textures nicely, but he also makes what can sound ponderous and overlong into exciting, tension-filled music that seems to harbor threats at every turn. The music begins roiling and churning, with both a sense of struggle and of some dreadful inevitability, the music suggesting rowing oars and the movement of water. Gradually the music builds in tense, somber, stately fashion until an ecstatic climax is reached, after which a quiet ending eventually comes with the arrival at the Isle of the Dead. The Detroit Symphony again plays magnificently. Slatkin with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra recorded all the symphonies, Isle of the Dead, and other Rachmaninov orchestral works in the late 1970s for Vox, but these newer efforts on Naxos are definitely to be preferred. There is considerable competition in the Rachmaninov symphonies from Previn, Ashkenazy, Svetlanov and others, but Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony can hold their own against anybody. Moreover, Naxos' sound reproduction is state-of-the-art.

Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings