Friday, 16 December 2011

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, December 2011)

RACHMANINOV The Symphonies
Russian National Orchestra / MIKHAIL PLETNEV
Deutsche Grammophon 477 9505 (4 CDs)

There was a time when recordings by Soviet-era Russian orchestras were praised for authenticity but vilified for poor sound. This changed when Russia’s first “hard currency” orchestra – the Russian National Orchestra – was formed by pianist Mikhail Pletnev with the encouragement of then-Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, and realised by recordings on the German “yellow label”. Rachmaninov’s three symphonies and choral symphony The Bells were recorded between 1993 and 2000, and remain close to definitive performances on disc.

Although Rachmaninov was not an overt nationalist, an over-arching Russianness pervades the symphonies, hung-over from Tchaikovsky and obsessed with the medieval chant Dies Irae (Day of Wrath). The melancholy and sense of doom are captured convincingly, also indelibly colouring the tone poems The Rock, The Isle Of The Dead and his final work, the three Symphonic Dances, almost a fifth symphony. This chief rival to this budget box-set is the Concertgebouw Orchestra led by Vladimir Ashkenazy (on Decca) but that does not include the cantata John Of Damascus by Rachmaninov’s teacher Sergei Taneyev, a masterpiece of Russian choral orthodoxy and counterpoint. A must have for lovers of Russian music.

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