Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1

Vladimir Ashkenazy / Philharmonia Orchestra

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Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1 Review

by James Manheim

Sergey Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13, was a fiasco at its 1897 premiere, possibly because the conductor, Alexander Glazunov, was drunk, and the work's failure plunged Rachmaninov into a long depression. In this performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra, led by the 79-year-old Vladimir Ashkenazy, you can hear what went wrong. The symphony is a splendidly ambitious youthful work, marrying crashing percussion gestures to dense counterpoint. When the brasses have to execute the latter, that's where the top level of the symphonic world gets separated from the rest, and the Philharmonia players make the cut here. Sample the beginning of the finale to hear the heated mood of the work and the challenges that awaited the brasses. They are ideally deployed by Ashkenazy, who knows this work backward and forward, and has recorded it twice before: he is an ideal interpreter, catching the work's frenetic packed quality, but keeping a certain agility throughout. Less than stellar here is Signum's sound in this live performance from the Royal Festival Hall: the brasses come through all right, but the strings sound rather harsh at the top. Still, Ashkenazy is the conductor you want in this work, and this is a tremendously exciting performance.

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