In 1897, severely disillusioned by a very critical reception, something exacerbated by what appears to have been a poor premiere (conductor Glazunov was allegedly drunk), Rachmaninov hoped to rid his First Symphony (completed two years earlier) from the World yet overlooked a set of parts from which the work was reconstructed after his death, although he did include a quotation from it in his swansong Symphonic Dances, composed nearly fifty years later. The second performance, in Moscow in 1945, Rachmaninov deceased for two years, was led by Alexander Gauk.
Symphony No.1 is great piece, jam-packed with personality (with leanings to Tchaikovsky), the music – often powerful – exudes thrills, beauties, much atmosphere and stirring pomp. Vladimir Ashkenazy, as a pianist and a conductor, is a veteran Rachmaninov interpreter and here brings his experience and devotion to bear on every bar, the Philharmonia Orchestra (with which Ashkenazy has a time-honoured association, forty and more years) fully responsive. The first movement is shot-through with much excitement and lyrical passion, the second is spectral and wistful, the third introspective and heart-touching, and the Finale (the ceremonial opening of which used to be the music for BBCTV’s Panorama) is an exhilarating roller-coaster journey until the music descends to Hell, something very graphically realised here.
So, an impressive performance of a ‘Cinderella’ piece, one that deserves a better press. This is certainly Ashkenazy’s second version, the first being an opulent Amsterdam taping, and I believe there is also a Sydney SO release on a Japanese label. Ashkenazy, to his credit, doesn’t tweak the orchestration, as for example Rozhdestvensky and Vladimir Jurowski have done, and leads an account both aflame and sensitive, recorded in a way that is faithful to the Royal Festival Hall’s immediate and lucid acoustic, dryness not precluding weighty attack. Thankfully, clapping is removed at the crunching end, very impactful here, but despite the “live in concert” tag there are no noises-off, save for a gentle cough in the Larghetto (and my headphones reveal everything), so I wonder if this is an audience-free performance, if given with full concert intensity, from earlier in the day (the stated date is correct); not that it matters for all music is live whether played for red-light microphones or for punters. I still hold to Walter Weller’s Suisse Romande Decca recording being the yardstick (he had a second go at the piece, in Basel) and this Ashkenazy can certainly be added to the ‘Rach 1’ shortlist.