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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

RECORD KEEPING | Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 1 Is Making A Comeback For 2018

By Paul E. Robinson on January 4, 2018

Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1. Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy. Signum Classics SUGCD484. Total Time: 43:23.
Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1. Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy. Signum Classics SUGCD484. Total Time: 43:23.

My first encounter with Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 1 dates back to the 1980s and a performance at Roy Thomson Hall by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov. I was blown away by the power of the piece in that totally committed and authoritative performance. At the time, I knew Rachmaninov’s Second and Third Symphonies and didn’t much care for them — too romantic in a Hollywood-kitschy kind of way — but in Rachmaninov’s youthful First Symphony, I heard echoes of Borodin and foreshadowings of Scriabin and Shostakovich. This was exciting stuff, and I was thrilled to hear it for the first time. Some 30 years later and much better-informed about Rachmaninov’s genius, I still respond with great anticipation to new recordings of the First Symphony; for example, this one by one of the Rachmaninov’s leading interpreters, pianist-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Ashkenazy has made no fewer than three recordings of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 1, the first in 1983 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra — now the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The second was recorded in 2007 with the Sydney Symphony when he was its music director. The third, this new version, is with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

Unfortunately, Ashkenazy’s first recording of the work was so good that the later ones pale by comparison. The Concertgebouw Orchestra played magnificently for Ashkenazy, and its playing was greatly enhanced by the legendary acoustics of the hall itself, which the Decca engineers captured in glorious sound. Rachmaninov’s late romantic music needs warmth and resonance and in the Concertgebouw recording; its needs were ideally served. Ashkenazy’s newest recording of the piece, on the other hand, was recorded live in the notoriously dry Royal Festival Hall in London and the results are disappointing, to say the least.

The best music in the Symphony No. 1 is to be found in the last movement, which opens with thrilling trumpet fanfares, followed by an urgent main theme that propels the music forward. Then comes a soaring second theme foreshadowing similar melodies in the Second Symphony and the Piano Concerto No. 2. Rachmaninov develops these themes with complete mastery, restates them in a fairly classical recapitulation, then tops it all off with a savagely chromatic coda that would not be out of place in a symphony by Scriabin or Shostakovich. The military fanfares at the beginning of the movement seem to lead to extreme and murderous conflict and ultimate devastation and despair. Rachmaninov adds the Tam Tam to his already large percussion section in these final pages and uses it with devastating effect. This is music of tremendous intensity.

In addition to all its other virtues, the Ashkenazy-Concertgebouw recording has the distinction of being the only one in my experience to capture those trumpet fanfares with the appropriate power and presence. In this new recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the three trumpets seem to be in the next room.

For listeners who already know and love Rachmaninov’s music but are not yet acquainted with his Symphony No. 1, do yourself a favour this holiday season: Get a copy of the Ashkenazy-Concertgebouw recording and discover the true wonders of this neglected masterpiece.

Available from iTunes and amazon.ca.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

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Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
Paul E. Robinson
Paul E. Robinson

Paul E. Robinson

Over the course of his career, Paul Evans Robinson has acquired a formidable reputation as a broadcaster, author, conductor, and teacher. He has communicated the joy of music to more than a generation of musicians and music lovers in Canada and elsewhere.
Paul E. Robinson
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