Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 3; Symphonic Dances

Vladimir Ashkenazy / Philharmonia Orchestra

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Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 3; Symphonic Dances Review

by James Manheim

Russo-Icelandic musician Vladimir Ashkenazy has long been something of an authority on the interpretation of Rachmaninov, both at the keyboard and on the podium. He has conducted several cycles of the composer's three symphonies that anyone would rank among the top readings in the catalog. It's not clear why the live concerts of which this release marks the last of the set, were recorded and released; they were made with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London in 2015 and 2016, when Ashkenazy was almost 80 years old. Whatever the case, it's a situation where everything goes right here. Ashkenazy has had a long relationship with the Philharmonia, and they follow his every move and mood. Despite Rachmaninov's general reputation for accessibility, the symphonies take careful thinking on the conductor's part if they are not to drag, and Ashkenazy excels at the relationship between long line and detail here. Moreover, he catches something deeper in the mood of the Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44. This work was written in the U.S. in 1939, and it has often been thought to represent nostalgia for Russia in an indefinable way. Sample the second movement, which in Ashkenazy's pulsing, somewhat rhythmically free reading weaves a kind of spell, and it won't seem so indefinable; it's an extraordinary meeting of conductor, musicians, and life experience. The Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, Rachmaninov's last completed composition and another with nostalgic overtones, is just as good, and less extraordinary only because the music is less complex. The live situation adds a tension that sets these readings above even Ashkenazy's other recordings, and its technical smoothness is impressive. If the track timings seem slower than usual in the finales, that's because the substantial applause for each work is retained. An essential release.

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