Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 (Symphony Studies No. 4 of 118)

by Glenn on August 7, 2015

As I continue my leisurely journey through The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide, by Michael Steinberg, I turned to an old favorite and a recording I hadn’t heard previously. I listened to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Opus 27 as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of André Previn.

It was serendipitous that I have this recording (found it used somewhere). In Steinberg’s introduction to this work, he references this “wonderful” recording by André Previn that was famously “uncut.” Many recordings and performances of this symphony are shortened here and there. Steinberg doesn’t believe the cuts improve things but he notes that Rachmaninoff was surprisingly neutral when told that other conductors included (up to 29) cuts.

I got to hear André Previn conduct an uncut version with The Los Angeles Philharmonic on Friday, 13 November 1987. I wish I had a stronger memory from that concert. My notes from that night about the Rachmaninoff are minimal: “Nice stuff … haunting melody.” I’m thinking this was my first exposure to it.

Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony wasn’t well received and so there was a ten-year gap before he found the courage to try the long form again.

I’m glad to have heard this LSO recording. My desert island recording of this symphony has been a  later recording by Previn with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I may have to rethink that.

I was working on a writing project, so this wasn’t focused listening by any means, but I do have a thought about the work and this performance.

Rachmaninoff can write a great tune. The adagio is marvelous and I don’t understand why you’d want to take any of it out. It’s gushingly romantic, so I could see some people being worn down by the emotion of it all. But I love it. I do like how Steinberg describes the opening of the Adagio:

“In the beautiful Adagio we find Rachmaninoff’s melodic genius working at full power. He begins as though in mid-phrase, with violas winding long garlands of triplets, over which the violins play a phrase that begins with an unforgettable upward thrust. That one is the phrase people usually come out singing after this symphony. But all this is just introduction.” (Emphasis added.)

Of course, not everyone is a Rachmaninoff fan. I kept a review of the afore-mentioned LA Phil concert with André Previn. Here is what Martin Bernheimer, the then Los Angeles Times music critic condescended to say about the work and the performance, including the Adagio:

“In the ultimate, unexpurgated Rachmaninoff orgy, Previn did his heroic best to sustain tension in the face of symphonic sprawl, to maintain calm despite the threat of emotive excess.

“He gave us Rachmaninoff’s expansive power, wherever possible, without his overwrought sentiment. The slush threatend to spill over a bit at the climax of the Adagio. That was unavoidable. For the most part, however, Previn managed to keep the bombast taught, the drama tight, the rhetoric elegant.

“It isn’t easy.”

I remember enjoying Bernheimer’s reviews. He had a way with words and a Faustian-sized ego.

Listen to the first thirty seconds of the Adagio to hear this gorgeous melody and the “long garlands of triplets”:

And listen to what pop performer Eric Carmen did with this tune back in the day:

It’s fun to see the pop stars look to the classical realm for inspiration or, in this case, actual notes.

Since it’s been a while since I’ve heard the RPO version, based on memory, I will say that the LSO is the better orchestra while the RPO was recorded better (Telarc, I believe). The LSO is so muscular and precise. They don’t need to hide anything, so a somewhat dry recording fails to expose any flaws. They are like Daniel Craig stepping out of the ocean in the first James Bond movie. The LSO soloists are exquisite but the band as a whole can make such a big, yet controlled, sound. It’s phenomenal.



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