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Richard A. Kaplan
Fanfare, September 2011

These are the Rachmaninoff recordings Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra made for Decca in 1991–93, originally issued on separate discs and combined here in a budget-priced set by the relatively new reissue label Newton Classics. Dutoit’s survey included the three symphonies and the other major orchestral works (of compositions with opus number, only the Caprice bohémien is omitted), plus the three works for chorus and orchestra.

Dutoit’s Rachmaninoff got mixed reviews when first released; Fanfare’s James Miller (15:6) and James H. North (17:6, 18:2, and 19:1), for example, complained about the sound quality Decca got in Philadelphia’s Memorial Hall, and North in particular commented that by the early 1990s the Philadelphia was Muti’s orchestra and no longer Ormandy’s, having lost much of the fabled “Philadelphia sound” that had been so well suited to Rachmaninoff’s music.

I find these criticisms to be true of some items more than others. The sound of the orchestra is certainly wrong for the First Symphony, but this may be more Dutoit’s problem than either the players’ or Decca’s; the performance lacks the fire and commitment of Ormandy’s Columbia version, and this is a piece that requires both. Dutoit’s third movement is too slow, and fails to cohere at this tempo.

The Second Symphony was the last to be recorded, and as North observed, seems to benefit more than the others from something like the “Philadelphia sound,” with its richness in the string section. In fact, according to the master personnel list in John Ardoin’s 1999 Philadelphia Orchestra commemorative volume, at least three dozen members in 1993 had been in the orchestra when Ormandy made his final recordings of the symphonies (and his only one of the First) between 1966 and 1973, so there must have been some institutional memory at work. Moreover, this is a fine reading very much in the Ormandy mold, expressive but never overstated, with an energetic but flexible Scherzo. Longtime principal clarinetist Anthony Gigliotti (presuming that he is the player of the third-movement solo) sounds as lovely as I’ve ever heard him. Tempos are well judged; listen, for example, to the natural unfolding of the introduction, and the transition into the first-movement Allegro. The only real misfire is Dutoit’s retention of the damnable timpani thwack Ormandy had unaccountably added to the first movement’s final note.

The Third, played with exposition repeat, is leaner-sounding than the Second, but that’s actually an asset in this score. Overall, the symphony is well played, but Dutoit’s interpretation is too episodic and his first movement too tight-reined; there are also some odd recorded balances.

Of the remaining orchestral works, the Symphonic Dances are the most successful; the sound has real impact, and Dutoit’s tempos are well calibrated throughout. The solo woodwinds (including the uncredited saxophone solo) are exquisite, as could be expected from this orchestra, for which the dances were written. Also very fine is The Rock, which benefits from a fairly fleet reading that minimizes the effect of excessive repetition. The Isle of the Dead is less good, suffering from an inflexible performance and from curiously opaque sound.

The disc of choral-orchestral music is the most consistently fine of the four. The Bells is one of the best-sounding performances in the set, and the music seems to unfold naturally at Dutoit’s tempos. The soloists are all strong, although soprano Alexandrina Pendachanska has a tremulous vibrato that will bother some listeners. Sergei Leiferkus is superb, and one couldn’t tell from the finished recording that his part was dubbed in after the rest of the performance was recorded! Dutoit’s Spring may be the finest ever recorded, again featuring an ideal contribution from Leiferkus. The Three Russian Songs are less successful; Ormandy had a better feel for this music than Dutoit, although his version is in English.

Newton does not supply texts, and the timings listed on the back are consistently short. …this set is a good, inexpensive way to acquire most of Rachmaninoff’s music for orchestra in performances ranging from adequate to outstanding.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, March 2011

You can sample the sophisticated and vibrant sound in the first five minutes of The Bells. On the other hand what should be bristling excitement seems blunted. It’s more Autumn reflective than Spring rapture—though I did really like the ardent tenor of Kaludi Kaludov. The same can be said of the smooth accounts of Spring and Three Russian Songs. This last disc was reissued by Decca Eloquence in 2005 and was well liked at the time by John Phillips. The Symphony No. 3 is also rather middle of the road, highly competent but not gripping; same goes for The Isle of the Dead although the little violin ‘commas’ at 3:55 are superbly etched in. Things improve by a degree or two for the Symphonic Dances but nothing to compare with the classic Kondrashin or to Temirkanov on Signum or Neeme Järvi on Chandos or Brilliant. In fairness things do hot up in the final measures of the third dance but it’s too little too late. Unforgivably Dutoit does not insist on the final tam-tam smash being allowed to vibrate to silence. The Second Symphony is a cut above in this company. It all seems very well judged, sumptuous and with plenty of heady adrenaline. It can reliably be counted in the variegatedly excellent company of Svetlanov, Rozhdestvensky, Cura (do not forget him on any account), Kogan (dazzlingly bright) and Sanderling. The Rock is an early work and very Rimskian. It suits Dutoit’s temperament and is done lucidly and with considerable poetry. The First Symphony is also well put across. I really warmed to the second movement for the first time.

Exemplary design decisions by Newton Classics. The supportive notes are by David Gutman.

…highly refined sound with a generally cool emotional approach, an especially engaging Second Symphony and a good First. Will suit listeners who want less of the lush romantic side of Rachmaninov and prefer to avoid extremes of temperature.

Blair Sanderson, November 2010

Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded the three symphonies and major orchestral works of Sergey Rachmaninov between 1992 and 1995 for Decca, and these recordings have been reissued together as a four-CD set by Newton Classics. The brooding post-Romantic music of this Russian master poses special problems for conductors because the orchestration is often dense and low-to-middle range, so some selectivity in the balancing of sections is required for clarity’s sake. Dutoit makes the textures reasonably clear and draws out distinctive tone colors wherever possible, so this set is not as murky sounding as some, though much of the weightiness of these scores was certainly intended by Rachmaninov. The Philadelphia Orchestra is a little less lush here than in its famous recordings with Eugene Ormandy, where a rich string tone, woodwind doublings, and heightened attacks dominated the performances. Here, Dutoit keeps the strings’ vibrato in check and generally saves the orchestra’s huge sonorities for the big moments, so the music doesn’t seem overblown or overly emotional, charges that are sometimes leveled at these pieces when they are carelessly played. Because the recordings were all-digital, the sound is clean and clear, and the orchestra has credible presence.

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8:08:55 PM, 3 May 2015
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