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I am happy to report that the performances on this CD live up to the hype. This is now my favourite recording of the symphony that I have heard, and apart from one or two minor niggles, the Symphonic Dances are excellent also. It is a live recording but you would never know it. The orchestra sound great, as expected.
Only nine years after Rachmaninoff’s death, the 1954 edition of Grove’s Dictionary saw fit to bury the composer by intoning “The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favor.”
Of course, the article was published near the peak of an anti-Romantic period when all but the most abstract music was laughed at by the cognoscenti. As Stephen Hough noted, the attitude even extended to architecture, with charming historic homes and buildings being torn down in favor of lifeless modernist monoliths.
Within 15 years of the article’s publication, the opposite of the Grove’s prediction was proving to be true. The composer’s Second Symphony, Second and Third Concertos, and Paganini Rhapsody were as popular as ever. Moreover, works which were perceived as failures during Rachmaninoff’s lifetime (some labelled as such by the composer himself) began to enter the active repertoire thanks to the advocacy of committed interpreters. These works include the Second Piano Sonata, the All-Night Vigil, and, of course, the First Symphony – a work that suffered from a disastrous premiere under the baton of a drunken Alexander Glazunov. It is especially fitting that the coupling on this disc is the Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninoff’s last composition, which references the First Symphony and the All-Night Vigil, and which also took decades to enter the active repertoire. Rachmaninoff was a skilled conductor and was offered (and declined) contracts with both the Boston Symphony and Cincinnati Symphony in 1917. When he finally consented to conduct for recordings, he selected the Philadelphia orchestra, which he had previously declared the world’s finest, stating that European audiences had not heard its equal.
Based on the above, I desperately wanted to love this disc, featuring Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Sadly, it has failed to meet my expectations. The performance of the First Symphony is competent but lacking the spark that Ashkenazy and Rozhdestvensky have brought to the piece. The Symphonic Dances fare a bit better, but Nézet-Séguin’s primarily architectonic interpretation of the piece provides structural solidity at the expense of some of the work’s finer points, resulting in a rather colorless second movement waltz which is missing the haunting quality of Ashkenazy’s or Previn’s versions; to say nothing of Nézet-Séguin’s bloodless view of the third movement’s central section (which should tread the line between voluptuous and lurid as Kondrashin’s version with the Moscow Philharmonic does). In the end, this disc offers clean run-throughs of the music in question, but is wanting in the commitment that truly makes for a performance - which is ironic given that the recordings derive from live performances.
The Rachmaninoff revival shows no signs of abating as we enter the third decade of the 21st Century. While there are numerous recordings that will be cited as hallmarks of that revival, I am confident that this disc will sadly not be one of them. That said, the sound is excellent, and on a minor note, I must confess to being pleased that Deutsche Grammophon has finally consented to spell the composer’s name as the composer preferred.
I heard that this CD received a negative review at Gramophone. I won't read it - they're idiots. This is fabulous in every possible way. Philly sounds fantastic and the recording is both rich and clear sounding. Nothing more need be said. Nezet-Seguin conducts both works in an entirely idiomatic manner, and with sufficient energy where called for. He's also correct in allowing the big tam-tam (large symphonic gong of no specific pitch) to ring on at the end of the "Symphonic Dances". The same, deep sounding tam-tam makes its presence felt at the end of the First Symphony too. Truly, this is maybe the best orchestral disc I've purchased in quite a while. Keep them coming from N-S/Philadelphia.
The recent DG recordings of works by Rachmaninoff all have been a disappointment. The four piano concertos, with the brilliant Daniil Trifonov and also the Rachmaninov Variations disc, also with Trifonov have left me dissapointed. Not with the soloist or the Philadelphia but the recording of the Philadephia Orchestra itself. Now this recording of a 2018 live performance of the Rachmoninoff First Symphony is orchestral only and cannot fall back on a brilliant soloist to make us overlook the flat and uninspiring vision of this work by conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin. If you doubt this assessment, you have but to listen to Ormandy/ Previn/Ashkenazy/Maazell/ conduct this symphony on their respective labels. And again, as with the concerto recordings, DG has recorded the orchestra poorly. The Symphonic Dances fare better but still nothing to write home about. Pass on future DG/Rach releases.
These performances of the first symphony and Symphonic Dances of Rachmaninoff are absolutely superb. They are vigorous without being antic. They are richly played without losing the intensity inherent in the works. They maintain rhythmic coherence without becoming static. The less frequently performed Symphony No. 1 is confirmed here to be a masterwork at the very top of Rachmaninoff's game. The Philadelphia Orchestra is so very closely associated with the works of Rachmaninoff, and I can only presume that this is one reason the performances here feel so compelling and "right." For me personally, these new performances reach the very heights of the pioneering Previn, the classic Ashkenazy, and the unjustly under-rated Slatkin (Detroit Symphony) performances . I cannot wait for further issues of the orchestral works of Rachmaninoff from these marvelous Philadelphia sources.
This symphony was a flop at its premiere, probably due to conductor Glazunov's drunkenness. A performance like this sets the record straight! It's a very good symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, traditionally splendid, is here in breathtaking form. Go for it!