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CD Review

Sergei Rachmaninoff

  • Symphony #1 in D minor, Op. 13
  • The Rock, Op. 7
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/Dmitri Kitayenko
Oehms OC440 62:53
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Dmitri Kitayenko and the Gurzenich Orchestra of Cologne have recorded complete sets of the symphonies of Shostakovich for Capriccio (2005), Prokofiev for Phoenix Editions (2008) and Tchaikovsky for Oehms (2010-14), and in the process have generally received enthusiastic response, including from me in the Prokofiev (Phoenix Edition 135). Now it appears Kitayenko is launching a cycle of the Rachmaninov symphonies with this orchestra, with which he holds the title of honorary conductor. Kitayenko recorded a cycle of the Rachmaninov symphonies with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra for Melodiya (1983-85). He is highly regarded internationally, especially in Russian repertory.

For several reasons, the Rachmaninov First Symphony was both a fateful and prophetic work: firstly, it is shot through with the Dies Irae (Day of wrath) theme, which Rachmaninov used obsessively in many compositions throughout his career; secondly, the original manuscript, long ago lost or destroyed, reportedly contained a Biblical quotation as an epigraph – "Vengeance is mine, I will retaliate, spake the Lord"; and lastly, the symphony ends in catastrophe, which, not ironically, is how the 1897 premiere turned out for the composer. It almost ruined Rachmaninov's career, as reviews were devastatingly harsh. (By the way, triskaidekaphobes will notice that the work's opus number is 13!) Rachmaninov lost confidence in his abilities for several years and eventually sought help from Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who used hypnotism and other psychotherapeutic methods for more than three months on Rachmaninov. The treatment worked and the composer then produced his ever-popular Second Piano Concerto, dedicating it to Dr. Dahl. The First Symphony was not played again until 1945, two years after Rachmaninov had died. It has since become regarded as a masterpiece.

Kitayenko does not seem to treat the symphony as an enigmatic or prophetic work, but rather as an early, quite compelling and typical Rachmaninov orchestral work, which is say that it is music of beauty, passion and angst. Indeed, and he gives us a decidedly clear-headed and transparent reading. His Rachmaninov First is a highly detailed, precisely and crisply played performance that allows you to hear the composer's minutest textures. Main and secondary lines are presented in proper balances and the orchestra plays with spirit and accuracy. Kitayenko captures the plentiful menace, the spastic lurches and the neurotic drive as well as the heart-on-sleeve lyricism and those arresting moments of angelic ecstasy. Perhaps the finale is most memorable here, from the festive bombast of its opening to the crushing power and darkness of the closing pages. I don't know if I've ever heard this music played with such desperation and fierceness. Not that the other movements are less convincingly realized: they are all well played and brilliantly shaped, with the second and third movements having a less thread-bare character than in many other recordings, as the materials that reappear from the first movement always seem to sound fresh. I would have no problem recommending this as a first choice in this work, but there is also the excellent Slatkin version on Naxos which I reviewed here quite favorably in 2013 (8.573234).

The Rock (1893) is also an early work, but not quite on the inspirational level of the First Symphony. It's not without thematic appeal, however, and it is a colorful piece whose marvelous sense for fantasy and playfulness make it a pleasant listening experience. The performance here allows for the lighter character of the work to show through, as Kitayenko draws more relaxed playing from the orchestra. This is Rachmaninov lite, delivered with commitment and the same kind of high level skill as invested in the symphony. The sound reproduction is vivid and powerful in both works. In sum, this is an excellent disc of early Rachmaninov that should appeal to both the composer's admirers and to those with an interest in post-Romantic music.

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings