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SERGEI RACHMANINOV - Symphony No. 1 - The Rock - Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne - Dimitri Kitajenko (Conductor) - 4260034864405 - Released: January 2015 - Oehms Classics OC440

When people talk about the music of Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), the conversation always circles around his works for solo piano, his impressive Piano Concertos and his choral Vespers. But very rarely does anyone discuss or even mention his powerfully dramatic Symphonies. Hopefully the new cycle set in motion by this recording of the Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 will help rekindle admiration for them. A few points that should easily balance the scales in their favor are the forces involved in this project. First and foremost, conductor Dimitri Kitajenko whose just recently completed cycle of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies comes very highly recommended, and his benchmark recording of the complete Prokofiev Symphonies (reviewed here) which I consider to be the most gripping and potent account available. These are clear indicators of how well this conductor understands the Russian spirit and interacts with Russian music. His long list of credentials and achievements is quite remarkable. Add the fact that the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne have just recently finished recording a very impressive cycle of all the Gustav Mahler Symphonies for Oehms Classics , the same label as this new release, and we have all the ingredients needed for a remarkable set of Rachmaninov recordings.

From the opening note on, Kitajenko sets the tone for what is to be an intensely Russian account. The first four notes that open the symphony, with their dark and foreboding character, serve as the main motif or the basic cell if you will, on which the whole organism is based. And yet a mere 35 seconds later, the clarinet introduces a bright and cheerful melody that instantly lightens the mood. It's a symphony of contrasts, from the grim and oppressive to intensely romantic and expressive. Elements of ancient Orthodoxy clashing with late 19th century desires and aspirations. There are also moments of great power like the brilliantly scored (for a 22 year old composer) march/fanfare that opens the final movement, magnificently captured here by the members of the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne. The symphony's opening four-note motif returns to open each and every movement but always in a different guise. It also closes the symphony, by which time it's been completely transformed and has turned the whole work on its head, and in one of those masterful harmonic twists that only great composers know how to wield, caps the symphony with an energetic and life affirming glow.

The composer's own Second Symphony has always overshadowed this one, and from my standpoint, there is no obvious reason as to why that should be. I understand that at its première in 1897 it was butchered (or maybe sabotaged) by the conductor (Alexander Glazunov) who was found to be drunk at the time, and that because of this it was instantly reviled by the critics and public alike. So much so that Rachmaninov himself banned any further performances of it during his lifetime. Maybe had he persevered in its promotion despite all the negative impact of one performance, it would have become a crowd pleaser. The First and Second are two very different works, each with its own merits, and should be percieved that way. If you've never heard this captivating symphony, I can't but highly recommend you listen to this new recording. And if you've heard it before, but never quite warmed to it, this great new recording may just be the one that finally breaks the ice.

Jean-Yves Duperron - January 2015