I am old enough to remember Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony being cut to shreds. Now performances, if not two a penny, are frequent and complete, and this is partially due to the LSO and André Previn and their early-1970s EMI recording (although Paul Kletzki’s Decca version was first in terms of wholeness). Previn understood when to allow the music to speak for itself confirming, with great insouciance, that the gainsayers were wrong. Nowadays it is difficult to understand how resistant so many were to Rachmaninov’s music and his extraordinary melodic invention (tunes yards long) so clearly displayed in this mighty work.
Fortunately, Brahms and his music did not suffer the vilification heaped on Rachmaninov all those years ago. I can recall the young Emanuel Ax performing Concertos in those days almost exclusively in the Royal Festival Hall as all London’s orchestras fought to perform there. It was therefore a great pleasure to welcome back a stalwart of this repertoire to give us his view of the taxing Second Piano Concerto, now matured over the intervening years.
Timothy Jones’s beautifully phrased horn solo opened the Concerto as this magisterial performance began. Double basses (a reminder of Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral placing) lined the back of the stage, looking down on the brass and woodwinds. This created a problem in that Simon Rattle had not divided his violins and there was an aural gap between the cellos and basses when they played in unison. However, Ax and Rattle had clearly developed a close rapport and the dialogue between pianist and orchestra throughout was a lesson in how to manage this massive work. In the third-movement Andante Timothy Hugh’s cello struck the right balance between a solo performance and being part of the ensemble: he managed to lead Ax into the music without taking the limelight before the pianist enjoyed another dialogue with two clarinets. The Finale was ideally grazioso as the piano danced to the end, horns in attendance. Ax then embraced Hugh before they joined in one of Schumann’s Opus 73 Fantasiestücke.
The compressed acoustic of the Barbican Hall was not kind to Rachmaninov’s orchestra, but the basses came into their own as the slow introduction took us on Rattle’s passionate journey in this remarkable work. All the same the long distance to the cellos had not been bridged. Sir Simon eschewed a score and his enthusiasm for the music was total as he engaged his players in his vision. I have one cavil: the dull clarinet playing of Chris Richards failed to raise the Adagio to its greatness as managed, for example, by Jack Brymer with Previn. The Finale and its ‘big tune’ was thrilling, the glorious LSO strings at its heart, and the glorious coda was managed brilliantly.