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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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Slatkin concludes his second, superior Rachmaninov cycle – the latter on Naxos – with this disc, and it confirms his mastery of the composer's music. It also fortifies the notion that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is both resurgent and enormously gifted. To my knowledge, this is the orchestra's first complete symphony cycle of any kind since Paul Paray's long forgotten take on the Schumann symphonies on Mercury, and in any event is their first and only project of this kind entirely in stereo. So it is enormously satisfying to see a major label endorse such an endeavor, particularly when everything goes so well.

Slatkin's previous efforts in this music for Vox are well regarded, and of course he had a unique and long-standing relationship with his Saint Louis players. But Naxos provides stellar sound quality, and Slatkin himself clearly is playing to the strengths of his orchestra. Strings are ravishing throughout, and there is a rhythmic alacrity and crispness that is really impressive. The winds, which have been a hallmark of this orchestra since at least the 1950's, sound absolutely stunning. And as mentioned, the sonic legacy of Orchestra Hall in downtown Detroit is richly upheld in this remarkably present and vivid recording.

The first symphony hardly lacks for excellent recordings, but Slatkin's stands tall in a crowded field. The first movement launches in ominous darkness, and is exceptionally played. That tension is maintained throughout, leading into a splendidly argued second movement that holds your attention all the way through. Again, those Detroit winds are unbelievable, but the whole orchestra deserves praise. Listen to the precision of the strings underpinning the solo work of Concertmistress Yoonshin Song, or the thrilling climaxes the conductor creates. It's all great. A touching, but never overwrought third movement Larghetto provides some calm and beauty, before a powerfully persuasive finale roars into action. Again, the sound really allows you to hear everything, and the result is a total package as satisfying as anything on the market. Working backwards, the disc begins with an Isle of the Dead that shares the same qualities as the symphony, namely a welcome attention to rhythm and superlative orchestral playing. All in all, a terrific end to a terrific cycle, essential to anyone who loves this music.

Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman