Superb Rachmaninov triptych from Bergen

Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances; The Rock; The Isle of the Dead

Andrew Litton/Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (BIS)

rachmaninov-litton-bergen-bisA couple of decades ago, the partnership of Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic yielded some terrific discs, initially for Chandos (a splendid set of Tchaikovsky symphonies) and later for EMI. It strikes me that another Norwegian orchestra, the Bergen Philharmonic, led by Andrew Litton is going through a similar purple patch, especially in Russian repertoire. After an impressive pair of Stravinsky discs, they now turn to another Russian composer who settled in the United States: Rachmaninov. Litton has fine form here. He partnered Stephen Hough on his Hyperion traversal of the piano concertos and recorded the symphonies and other orchestral works with the Royal Philharmonic in 1989. Aided by BIS’s superbly engineered recording, in the demonstration bracket, listening to this disc is an immensely satisfying experience. The three works span Rachmaninov’s compositional life, from The Rock (his first published work for orchestra written in 1893) to the Symphonic Dances (his final work from 1941).

The disc begins with The Isle of the Dead, written shortly after his Second Symphony in 1909, inspired by a black and white reproduction of Arnold Böcklin’s sombre painting which bears that title, depicting the rocky island in still, dark waters over which a boat, bearing a coffin and a white-robed figure, steadily makes its progress. The oppressively uneven rocking of Charon’s boat across the waters is conveyed by Rachmaninov through use of an almost hypnotic 5/8 metre, starting quietly but builds in volume as it approaches the island. Litton gradates the crescendo carefully, yet balances the orchestral texture (aided by excellent engineering) so the rocking double basses are ever-audible, so that by 8’55” its impact is almost overwhelming. In the central episode, where Rachmaninov shifts to triple time, the first four notes of the plainchant setting of the Dies irae sound and became the composer’s musical motif for death, recurring in his works, most notably the Symphonic Dances which conclude this disc. The string theme which follows – an impassioned plea for life – and the Bergen strings blossom magnificently here, rich and ardent as they arch ever higher before the Dies irae crushes all hope. The rocking theme returns as Charon, his task complete, rows back.

The Rock was inspired by a line in a Chekhov short story, On the road, where a young woman meets an older man in a Christmas Eve blizzard, at a roadside inn. Rachmaninov wrote a couplet from Lermontov’s The Rock over the epigraph: The golden cloud slept through the night/ Upon the breast of the giant-rock, which then lends the work its title. It’s a work indebted to Tchaikovsky, to whom he played some of the score.  Litton leads a persuasive account, with a spritely opening flute solo, shimmering strings and chattering woodwind.

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, his final work, composed after he settled in America, is a glorious summation of his career, enigmatic and full of self-quotation. Litton’s reading is almost identically paced as his earlier RPO account, although tauter in the finale, but the playing (and recording) makes this new version preferable. Neither Kondrashin’s incendiary account nor the equally fiery Svetlanov, both in fierce Soviet recordings, are matched here, but they both stand apart from the competition. Litton’s timpani and bass drum have explosive impact, the piano’s presence is audible and the contrabassoon’s growls are well caught. In the first movement, the woodwind exchanges between clarinet, oboe and cor anglais, (at 3’00”, just before the saxophone solo) are truly excellent. The Bergen strings launch into the romantic, sweeping melody (at 5’30”) with finesse; warm and tender, if leaner than either Jurowski’s LPO or the London Symphony for Gergiev. Litton encourages tasteful portamentos (such as at 2’20” in the second movement) to enhance the aching waltz theme, although I like the way Gergiev handles the hesitations as that waltz winds down. The brass interjections are incisive and Litton builds to a demonic finale. Only Jurowski, of my comparative listening, allows the final doom-laden tam-tam strike to resonate for any length of time; otherwise, Litton’s finale is most pleasing.

As good as Litton’s earlier Rachmaninov recordings undoubtedly were, I found him far more compelling here. Jurowski is finer still, the passionate response of the LPO in concert is tremendously exciting although you’re often aware of the sometimes restless audience (rustling, coughing and applause). Under studio conditions, I prefer BIS’s sound and full marks to them for introducing decent length silences between the trio of works. I imagine, with a couple of Rachmaninov symphony cycles in its catalogue already (assuming the Singapore Symphony record No.1), that BIS won’t spoil us with any of the symphonies from Bergen, but a foray into his three one act operas would be most welcome.


Rachmaninov: The Isle of the Dead; The Rock; Symphonic Dances; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/ Andrew Litton (BIS-SACD 1751)
Symphonic Dances:
Kirill Kondrashin/ Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra (BMG) 74321 32046 2 (1963)
Evgeny Svetlanov/ USSR Symphony Orchestra (Regis) RRC 1178 (1986)
Vladimir Jurowski/ London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) LPO—0004 (2003)
Andrew Litton/ Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Virgin, 3 discs) 7 59279 2 (1989)
Valery Gergiev/ London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live) LSO0688 (2009)
The Isle of the Dead:
Andrew Litton/ Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Virgin, 3 discs) 7 59279 2 (1989)
Vladimir Jurowski/ London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) LPO—0004 (2003)

This review originally appeared in IRR.

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