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James McMacarthy
Classic FM, February 2012

the most impressive feature of this new recording in the quicksilver dynamic fluidity of the orchestra—they are able to move from the boldest of fortissimos to the most tender of pianissimos in a heartbeat. There is an overwhelming sense that the musicians are moving as one with the same telepathic unity of a murmuration of starlings. It is mesmerizing. © 2012 Classic FM

David Radcliffe
American Record Guide, May 2011

Rachmaninoff was a conductor whose skills were such that one wishes that he had recorded more than just the three works heard here (the Vocalise and Isle of the Dead in 1929, the symphony in 1939). What might he have done with the other Russian masters? He was not idiosyncratic in performing his own music: the requisite northern melancholy but no wallowing in sentiment.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, February 2011

These three performances, the only examples of Rachmaninov conducting his own music, make obvious disc-mates. It’s by no means the first time they’ve been programmed in this way; one need only look at the multi-volume Rachmaninov ‘Complete Recordings’ from RCA [Red Seal 82876-67892-2] to note that disc three is set aside for these performances. And, further back, for instance, Pearl issued its transfers [GEMM CD 9414], and now Naxos has undertaken its own via the work of Mark Obert-Thorn.

The Third Symphony receives a magnificent reading, courtesy of the Philadelphia Orchestra in full flow. It responds to the composer’s deft and inventively romantic themes with glorious aplomb, stinting nothing in its tonal opulence in pursuance of the composer-conductor’s aims. Six of the eight sides were first takes. The opening side required the use of a second take—maybe it was a cold start—but once into the work the session seems to have progressed smoothly. That, if I’m reading things correctly, seems not to have been the case back in April 1929 when he recorded Isle of the Dead. All the selected takes were the fourth and fifth, so maybe there were co-ordination and ensemble problems—or maybe there’s another explanation. In any case the results were as convincing as the Third Symphony recording of a decade later. As so often, Rachmaninov directs tautly but with malleable and flexible control. The music surges with power and suggestive sonorities, and the strings’ luscious portamenti add their own vibrant gloss on the aural perspective. The ‘filler’, the final side, of this three 78 disc album, was Vocalise in the composer’s orchestrally garbed version—suitably rich, suitably lovely.

If you want these performances, this disc proves a canny and inexpensive way to acquire them, given that you may not want the 10 CD RCA box, and that the Pearl’s transfer is inferior to this latest release, should you be able to find it. Indeed Naxos preserves more surface noise than RCA, but less than Pearl, retaining full frequencies and sacrificing no loss of upper frequencies. Fortunately for those who decide to take a chance on the RCA box, its restorers have not gone crazy on over-processing, and things sound good.

Ian Lace
MusicWeb International, December 2010

Rachmaninoff was one of several composers including Elgar, Walton and Stravinsky who recorded their own works mainly in the first half of the last century. These are invaluable interpretations allowance being made for the exigencies of the old pre-LP days when these composer-conductors had to squeeze their music onto the severely time-restricted sides of old shellac discs.

Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony is a late work, completed in 1936 for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Leopold Stokowski conducted the premiere in the November of that year. The opening chords of Rachmaninoff’s interpretation seem to suggest an acute nostalgia and longing for his homeland, brushed aside only very briefly by the composer’s typical brio. This reading of Rachmaninov’s glorious final symphony is emotionally heartfelt, its radiant lyricism poignantly drawn and with the more violent and dramatic passages rendered in fiery colours. The Philadelphia’s gorgeous string tone with unrestrained portamenti underlines the passionate nature of the music especially in the lovely Adagio. Rachmaninoff’s harmonies and orchestrations - with scintillating percussive colour - are remarkable and mark seemingly newly explored territory and do not fail to arrest the ear. This is all vividly caught in this fine restoration by Mark Obert-Thorn.

Several months ago several MusicWeb reviewers (myself included) were asked to blind-review ten competitive recordings of Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead. I said in my contribution: “Interestingly, Rachmaninoff delivers this reading in 18:09, appreciably faster than some of the modern recordings...yet the composer’s viewpoint is atmospheric enough and there is a blazing dramatic and emotional intensity here.” I would go further and add that Rachmaninoff’s reading is not only exciting and atmospheric but entirely sympathetic to the plight of the departing soul. The sound restoration is very satisfactory.

The composer’s 1929 recording of his Vocalise is captured in its orchestral dress only - not in his arrangement for soprano and orchestra. Nevertheless the Philadelphia respond to his direction in a heart-rending reading.

Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, October 2010

We tend to forget that Serge Rachmaninov (1873–1943) possessed conducting skills on a par with his keyboard and compositional abilities, his having denied conductorships because he felt his repertory lacked breadth! Rachmaninov bequeathed us only three inscriptions, here assembled and remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn, a decided leap in sonic quality over the former Pearl label incarnation (and available online from outside-U.S. sources).

The Isle of the Dead (1909) received its inscription from Rachmaninov 20 April 1929. Inspired by a painting of Arnold Boecklin, the music captures the undulating waves of the Styx, then progresses through the plainchant Dies Irae to an intensely nostalgic melodic sequence that builds up—a la Tchaikovsky—to a superheated passion. The orchestration, quite lush, encompasses huge brass and string swathes, the canny application of harp and tympani, and the presence of low woodwinds in concert with sustained outbursts and whirling figures in tutti. The menace of the Dies Irae in the latter third of the work casts an ineluctable melancholy over the scene, The lachrymose return of the opening materials under the string melody suggests that Charon’s journey remains eternal, a sad momento mori in music that quite haunted Rachmaninov’s fertile imagination.

Rachmaninov set his wordless Op. 34 Vocalise in several arrangements: the one for string and wind orchestra (20 April 1929) appeared as filler for the RCA 78 rpm set M 75 with the Isle of the Dead. The string tone clearly reflects Stokowski’s free-bowing influence, a continuous and plastic line of melody that soars and ebbs in effulgent harmony. The 1936 Symphony No. 3 (11 December 1939) exists, like the later Symphonic Dances, as a direct result of Rachmaninov’s fruitful association with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It has never really challenged the hegemony of the E Minor Symphony, although its melodic and structural economy seems more classic and direct. The first movement’s large theme resembles “Shenandoah” or a deeply-ingrained folk melody. Somewhat in the manner of Sibelius, Rachmaninov condenses his second and third movements to combine Adagio and Scherzo. The defining affect remains nostalgic, typical of Rachmaninov’s musical persona. The level of execution from the Philadelphia Orchestra never ceases to impress for its intensity and clarity of detail. The last movement indeed presages the energized Symphonic Dances of Op. 45, a work Rachmaninov intended to inscribe, along with the Schumann Concerto and the Liszt Totentanz, but the “Fatal Bellman” intervened.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2010

The problem whenever you listen to a work by Rachmaninov played by the composer, is that you end up thinking ‘is there any other way to perform it?’ As a conductor he was note quite so sure footed, and I do miss the creepiness in Isle of the Dead though I guess that the 1920s sound quality has much to do with it, for here, and in Vocalise it is limited in dynamic range. Things improved considerably for the 1939 recording of the symphony though the sound is still boxy. In the more transparent moments it shows the Philadelphia orchestra in fine form, with solo passages that are of very beautiful quality. It is in the pacing of the score that everything flows so naturally, the pulse of the second part of the second movement taken with more urgency than we often hear today. The finale is not rushed, the drawback being the lack of punch in the climatic moments, the recordings not quite accommodating such outgoing music. If you are looking for a modern version, then listen to the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland with Anissimov conducting (Naxos 8.550808), recommended in the Gramophone Good CD Guide. This is one for Rachmaninov admirers.

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