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CD Review

Sergei Rachmaninoff

  • Symphony #1, Op. 13
  • Symphony #2, Op. 27
  • Symphony #3, Op. 44
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
Vox Box CDX5034 2CDs
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Should you happen to be on a budget, this is probably the cheapest cycle of the Symphonies on the market that is still in print. Leonard Slatkin is now the Music Director in Detroit, and he's since superseded these earlier Saint Louis efforts with his new ensemble. However, it's not easy to get the symphonies of anybody for around eleven dollars, and this set does have many worthwhile qualities that make it worth hearing.

For one thing, it fills two discs to the brim, lacking the cuts of so many "classic" sets and performances. For another, it shows Slatkin in his youthful prime; he's not nearly as exciting today as he proves here. At the very start of his career in St. Louis, he's already fully in tune with the composer's darkly brooding, but also deeply Romantic sound world. Slatkin's work revitalized the St. Louis forces, and it's really not hard to see why. He's always been a champion of the big blockbusters and the best of Americana, and at least in this stage of his career, he melded that with musical excellence.

But at the same time, I have to acknowledge that his efforts with my hometown orchestra in Detroit are superior. For one, Naxos gives Slatkin some great sound from historic Orchestra Hall. The sound quality on these Vox issues isn't terrible, but it lacks both the warmth and immediacy of the Naxos sessions. For another, Slatkin's elder self seems more comfortable a few decades later than he does here. Yes, he's possibly more incisive and propulsive here, but giving the music room to breathe hardly hurts this very Romantic canon. Finally, despite a very messy strike mid-cycle, the Detroit players are simply better equipped to handle this music, and they demonstrate with their customary excellence in the strings and woodwinds. The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra was a fine ensemble when these sessions were taped, but already there was steep competition from the likes of Ormandy in Philadelphia. The Saint Louis players simply lack that kind of polish. So while this set isn't what it used to be, and always had a lot to live up to, Slatkin the Younger does manage to give consistently fine performances with one of America's great orchestras. For some, that will be enough.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman