As pianist and conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy has covered virtually every nook and cranny of Rachmaninov’s output, and he has a many-decades close rapport with the Philharmonia Orchestra, evident throughout in these vivid accounts of the composer’s final two opuses.
The great Third Symphony – a masterclass of invention and orchestration – receives a wholesome performance (including the first-movement exposition repeat); no indulgence, rather a reading of assured direction yet without any lessening of beauty, power and passion, the music’s bittersweet qualities offset by potent emotions. Ashkenazy’s reading is to the point, acutely measured, so that structure and the composer’s innermost expressions are as-one and fully revealed, whether romantically glowing (nostalgic) or psychologically troubled: whatever the mood, and the ebb and flow, they all fit here. The Philharmonia is on terrific form, playing with edge and sensitivity, splendour and force, ardour and agility – as befits any particular moment in this wonderful piece, desert-island Rachmaninov for me. Ashkenazy joins himself (twice), the composer (1939), Previn (his first LSO recording, RCA), Kletzki and Paavo Järvi as amongst the top choices, while Golovanov, a law unto himself, is required listening.
Symphonic Dances (for Eugene Ormandy and his Philadelphians, premiered January 1941) is slightly less successful, somewhat garish and with a tendency to be rowdy (exacerbated by the recording – albeit with the same producer and engineer – which while once again mercifully presenting the RFH acoustic as the unencumbered marvel that it is, details shine and the bass is gutsy, is bring that bit more brightly projected, whereas Symphony 3 is perfectly equalised) even if orchestra and conductor are completely focussed on this fiery swansong. It’s partly tempo, the opening Non allegro (these days a contentious marking, it seems) is by a hairsbreadth too fast, although the saxophone-led middle section is touchingly brought off, with dignity. But don’t be put off, there is much consideration and excitement here. However, in this music, Ormandy reigns supreme, his 1960 CBS/Sony recording never-bettered (nor the Mathis der Maler that was on the LP’s other side), although there is much to admire in Ashkenazy’s traversal, not least the spooky second-movement waltz, and the Finale ends explosively, demonised. Applause is retained following the conclusion of both works.