Rachmaninov: Symphony No.3; Balakirev: Russia
Of Rachmaninov’s three symphonies, the Third enjoys the least popularity. There’s a certain notoriety to the First because of its disastrous première (thanks to a drunken Glazunov conducting), while the Second is adored for its expansive Russian romanticism. The Third, composed in exile at Villa Senar (next to Lake Lucerne), seems to hark back to his Russian homeland with its Orthodox chant-like phrases and its gloomy introspection. Few conductors truly “get” this symphony. Thankfully, Russian repertoire courses through Valery Gergiev’s veins.
I was fortunate enough to attend one of the concerts last November at which this scorching London Symphony Orchestra account of the Third was recorded and have been hungrily awaiting its appearance on disc ever since. LSO Live’s team are well versed in drawing rich sound from the Barbican’s truculent acoustics and the results here are largely superb.
Gergiev is in expansive mood, allowing the orchestra much more time to wallow in the nostalgic themes of the opening movement than, for example, Gianandrea Noseda does on his BBC Philharmonic/Chandos disc. Strings rival the richness of the Philadelphia Orchestra, with whom Rachmaninov recorded the symphony in 1939, sculpting swooning great sighs. Gergiev includes the first movement exposition repeat (as does Noseda – Rachmaninov cut it). Trumpets scythe through the recurring “fate” motif and Gergiev builds an ominous, brooding quality to the movement’s closing pages.
Katy Woolley (guest principal horn), Bryn Lewis (harp) and leader Roman Simovic conjure up a suitably bard-like opening to the second movement, a nod back to Borodin’s Second Symphony. The LSO strings soar with as honeyed a tone as you could wish for and Maxwell Spiers’ cor anglais solo is eloquently phrased.
Gergiev isn’t quite as pulsating as Noseda in the third movement, reining back his players so that detail registers in the scurrying string fugue. He cranks up the tension gradually, so that the Dies irae shadows creep up unawares, with the tremendous fireworks at the end driven home with a charismatic flourish. This LSO Live release is most welcome, following on from their Second (2010). I understand the First Symphony will follow in due course to complete the cycle.
As in the Barbican concert, the Rachmaninov symphony is paired with Mily Balakirev’s Russia, his second ‘Overture on three Russian Themes’ which draws on three folksongs the composer collected on his travels. Gergiev is a master at conjuring brooding Russian tone and the musical pictures evoked here are vivid. As Gergiev’s tenure at the LSO draws to a close, it’s in this sort of Russian fare that he will be most missed.
Valery Gergiev/London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live LSO0779, 57 minutes)