Review: Philharmonia plays Rachmaninov 2 with Vladimir Ashkenazy

Does the world need another recording of Rach 2? I’m never entirely sure we do necessarily. If we’re going to listen to another be sure it’s a cracking one.

I’m not asking for landmark recordings necessarily (whatever they are really), but what will get the big thumbs up from me are those performances where I’ve heard something different, and when I can see how it’s worked.

Fortunately for the Philharmonia, their release of a live recording of Rachmaninov 2 with Vladimir Ashkenazy achieves that. Little wonder they were keen to release it. I imagine that record label Signum are quite pleased with it too. 

The scale of the work, its orchestration, and the inclusive style of romantic music Rachmaninov makes it tempting to wallow in places. That’s when the slow movement gets a little more drawn out (and the clarinettist goes a little blue in the face), and when the fast movements lack the drive and the oomph necessary to lift the mood. Speed, promptness and efficiency isn’t necessarily the enemy of romantic expression, where wallowing self-indulgence can be. Throughout this live performance Ashkenazy favours the former. Thank God.

First Movement

Balletic swells across the entire orchestra really bring out an unexpectedly pastoral feel, especially in the legato string subject. It’s the detail that emerges in this live sound recording which excites and intrigues – each distinct voice having a distinct personality. In the case of the horn calls, there’s a fearless quality to the sound in the context of the rest of the orchestra which (I’m a sap) breaks my heart. That range of detail is heard through the final section of the last movement too. Striking for me is the way I’m left with a growing awareness of my own emotional state after the final chord has finished sounding at the end of the first movement. I’ve not experienced listening to the symphony in this way before. 

Second Movement

Swift and tight. There’s a restless insistence underpinning the whole thing illustrated by the constantly driving speeds every time the main subject returns. Some previous recordings characterise give this movement a cantering quality. I prefer the relentless, perhaps even perilous quality Ashkenazy gives it. 

Third Movement

The clarinet solo in the third movement feels more distant in this recording. The tone has harder edges giving the effect of a brave youthful character facing the world, defiant and alone. The effect is unexpected: I want to hug this imaginary person and tell them everything’s going to be alright. The revelation in this recording is the effect on me when the main subject returns (in the strings). It’s the same material, but it feels as though we’ve reached an uneasy sense of resolution. Emotionally, we’ve come out of the ringer. We’re at one. That’s much to do with the strings softening the main melodic idea and the sweet legato counter-melodies from the woodwind. The effect is restorative.

Fourth Movement

Because the sense of resolution is more obvious at the end of the third, that transforms the fourth symphony into more of a joyously celebratory affair. This like no other recording I’ve heard feels like less of a recovery from the intensity of the third movement, more like a well-earned party.

My go-to recording (largely because it was the first recording of the work I ever heard) has always been the London Symphony Orchestra with Gennadi Rhozdhdestvensky from 1988. Ashkenazy’s performance with the Philharmonia is considerably more agile whilst still maintaining the considerable emotional clout of Rachmaninov’s composition.

Listen to Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra play Rachmaninov’s second symphony in a live recording on Idagio or Spotify

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