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Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 - Litton

Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 - Litton

BIS  BIS-2071

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Sergei Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27
Anatoly Liadov: The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrew Litton (conductor)


Since his appointment as chief conductor and later music director in 2003, Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra have richly proven a particular affinity for Russian repertoire, both on their numerous tours and in recording. Works by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Medtner and Scriabin have featured on discs which have been welcomed by the international music press with distinctions such as Editor's Choice (Gramophone), Disc of the Month (Classic FM Magazine and ClassicsToday.com), Empfohlen (Klassik-Heute.de) and IRR Outstanding (International Record Review).

As Litton now steps down from his post with the Bergen orchestra, the team marks the event with their rendition of Sergei Rachmaninov's gigantic Second Symphony, with its playing time of 60+ minutes as broad and expansive as the Russian steppes. The work followed upon a first symphony which in 1897 had had a disastrous reception, and it took the intensely self-critical Rachmaninov ten years before making another attempt at the genre. Fortunately the first performance of the work in 1908 was a complete success, the broad melodic gestures and the arduous journey from the brooding melancholy of the symphony’s introduction to the triumphant liberation at its close speaking directly to the St Petersburg audience. Later criticism of the symphony’s broad scale prompted Rachmaninov to sanction several cuts, however, and it was only in the mid-1960s that it became common practice to perform the symphony complete – as in the present recording.

Rachmaninov is joined on the disc by his older colleague Anatoly Liadov, whose brief and shimmering tone poem The Enchanted Lake provides an atmospheric ending to the recording – in the words of Liadov himself an image of nature, as ‘fantastic as a fairy tale’, in which the listener will feel ‘the change of the colours, the chiaroscuro, the incessantly changeable stillness…’

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - November 6, 2015

A hair-raising performance of Rachmaninov’s second symphony by the Bergen Philharmonic under its former Chief Conductor, Andrew litton. A worthy farewell gift!

About 50 years ago I read an ‘expert’ review of Rachmaninov's second symphony in which the reviewer didn't think much of it: too much hollow melodrama, reminiscent of the second piano concerto, but not quite, and with the piano sorely missing. In those days Rachmaninov was seen by influential critics as no more than a passing, fashionable composer, whose music was repetitive, lacking innovation, and soon to be forgotten. The 1954 edition of the groves Directory said about his compositional style: "monotonous in texture ... consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes" and predicted that his popular success was "not likely to last".

Public at large liked him for his second piano concerto, especially the schmaltzy second movement, and the glitzy prelude in c sharp minor. On the other hand there were a number of notable musicians, mainly pianists, who had more faith in Rachmaninov’s skills, especially as regards his third piano concerto, of which Byron Janis has always been such a fervent advocate. They kept the fire smoldering until the slow but steady revival of the total of Rachmaninov’s oeuvre from the 1970’s onward.

I got to know his second symphony through a 1961 Command Classics stereo recording with the Pittsburgh Symphony under William Steinberg. In spite of the negative remarks of said expert I was immediately won over. This symphony remained one of my favourites ever since.

Recordings of his second symphony have now swamped the catalogue and in Super Audio format one can choose from no less than 12 (excluding doubles and this one). So, any new comer in this field should be able to offer something special. Where do Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic stand?

One wonders why BIS, so soon after the first, issued a second recording of this symphony with a different orchestra. Difficult to say or to speculate on. Will it be the beginning of a cycle? I have my doubts, because Andrew Litton’s tenure as Chief Conductor with the Bergen Philharmonic has come to an end and his position has now been taken over by Edward Gardner, who has his own commitments, planning i.a. to record for Chandos.

For comparison I have chosen the following two recordings: The much hailed (Gramophone Editor's choice; Diapason d'or) Ivan Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra, as well as Edo de Waart and the Dutch Radio Symphony Orchestra, available on Exton (not to be mistaken by his earlier Philips recording with the Rotterdam Philharmonic).

This being the first time that I listened to these two recordings side by side I was immediately struck by the enormous difference in approach. The almost velvety first movement of Fischer had little in common with de Waart's dramatic, or should I say ‘Russian’ reading, like the ones we know from the Melodiya label: Not always faultless but where the heart wins from the brain.

The choice between the polished to perfection, but emotionally somewhat undernourished reading of Ivan Fischer; the big-brushed, dramatically exciting performance of de Waart, and this new recording is by no means an easy one.

Timings are seldom a useful yardstick. Taking the total time, Litton is the slowest of all three and Fischer has by far the fastest first movement. This movement is, in my opinion, the real ‘testing ground’ for comparison. However, in spite of almost 5 minutes (!) difference, Fischer does not sound hurried, nor does Litton sound sluggish. The answer lies in the score used. All three performances use the ‘complete’ one. The difference is that Fischer does not observe the (optional) repeat in the exposition in the first movement. Taking that out, de Waart is faster by an inch or so.

What it does mean, however, is that by including the repeat, the first movement gains over 20 per cent in length, making it for a conductor more difficult to keep the various strands of brooding suspense and drama together without breaking up the emotional flow and losing the listener’s attention. For any serious Rachmaninov lover the full, uncut score, including the repeat, is kind of a must. De Waart succeeds and so does Litton, the difference with de Waart being that his reading is not painted with a large brush; it’s precise and blooming.

Litton’s introduction of the first movement may be slower than the others’ but it is, like de Waart, immensely more powerful than Fisher and, indeed, hair-raising. Combined with a well measured amount of portamento in the upper strings, effectively underscoring the composer’s mood at the time, Litton conveys in the course of this movement more convincingly than Fisher the sorrow and melancholy of a tormented Rachmaninov, having fled the horrors of the Bolsheviks in his home country, settling in Dresden before moving to North America.

If the second movement were a train, then we would have a Litton train and a Fisher one. (De Waart’s train having many similarities with Litton’s, driving as it were on the same tracks, I will leave it out, concentrating, also for the sake of brevity, between the other two for the remainder of the symphony).

Fisher’s train is a comfortable ride: clean and smooth, slowing every now and then for admiring hilly scenery; stalling for a signal till it turns green, moving then on at a trundling speed. Litton’s passengers are less comfortable, their train is moving forcefully forward; the ‘hilly’ sections turning out to be waves of melancholy. Instead of stalling, the red signal is approached in anticipation that it will soon turn green, letting the train regain its thunderous course, inducing thrilling excitement on the voyagers.

The lyrical heart of the symphony is the third movement. Here, too, Fisher and Litton differ on almost every count: In Fisher’s conception beauty comes first. Playing is precise. I fully agree with someone else’s remark about his reading, namely that it sounds over rehearsed, thus emptying it from its spontaneous content; it does not hit any emotional vein. It sounds more like the second movement of Rachmaninov’s piano concerto as it was liked half a century ago. Too much sweetness for my taste.

Litton lets the clarinet hover over lyrical strings without entering into the realm of tear jerkers. He brings out the beauty in a positively emotional sense, following the melodically long lines, so typical for Rachmaninov.

It does not come as a surprise that the final movement in Litton’s rendition is one of urging robustness, where Fisher's stays in his highly polished, faultless format. My only quibble with Litton is that he introduces a couple of sudden changes in tempo, interrupting the forward drive. Knowing, on the other hand, that Rachmaninov added ample instructions, I take it that Litton was following them up.

In the end it often boils down to what the listener’s preferences and expectations are. If you cherish musical perfection, than Fischer is a good choice. He draws out the lyrical elements, albeit at the expense of ‘the Russian soul’. I doubt that such an emotionally less demanding account is what Slavic oriented audiophiles have in mind. They would probably go for de Waart’s emotionally charged excitement.

For those who prefer the best of both worlds in terms of soul and perfection, with exemplary orchestral playing, Litton is a very serious contender in a crowded field. His reading has it all: power, tension and emotion, with lyrical moments, though definitely without superfluous sugar in his brew.

Finally, as a not to be neglected bonus, recorded with excellent sound, matching that of Channel Records.

This disk should be on anyone’s list for the ‘stocking of the season’.

After listening to this highly charged reading, BIS brings your nerves back to calm with 6 minutes of Anatoly Liadov’s ‘The Enchanted Lake’. I can be brief, because that’s what it is: Enchanted; with sumptuous sound from the Bergen Symphonic Brigade.

All in all a marvelous disk.

Blangy le Château
Normandy, France

Copyright © 2015 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Sonics (Stereo):

Sonics (Multichannel):

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Review by Mark Novak - November 30, 2015

This is a disappointing performance and recording of the Rachmaninov 2nd symphony. In the last few years I’ve been warming up to Andrew Litton’s performances on the BIS label despite a dodgy track record previously. I rather liked his recording of the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances (Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances - Litton) but was less than pleased with the recent Prokofiev 5th symphony which seemed to have all the rough edges shaved away (Prokofiev: Symphony 5, Scythian Suite - Litton). This Rach 2 shares the same issue – it lacks inspiration and at times is just plain boring. Most of the problem lies in the first movement where Litton requires 23:07 minutes. The music sags from lack of excitement. Compare this with Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (an SACD recording that has no review on this site!) who require just 18:19 to cover the same ground and you can see (and hear) an enormous gulf between them on timing alone. I don’t think Fischer rushes anything but judiciously moves the music along while shaping phrases to optimal effect.

Things do improve in the 2nd movement where Litton invests the scherzo with the energy and dynamics that seemed missing in the 1st movement. Here, Litton and Fischer have nearly identical timings – toss a coin here because both are very good. But when the music slows down for the adagio 3rd movement, Litton reverts back to a slower tread that robs the music of its natural flow. The big tune that begins the movement is lovely but just a bit more pep would have made it ideal. Litton requires just over a minute longer here than Fischer and that does make a small difference on the effect of the music. The last movement, marked Allegro Vivace (note that the booklet and cover of Fischer’s SACD shows it as “Adagio Vivace”) has all the excitement needed in Litton’s performance and it brings the symphony to its exciting and bombastic conclusion. Litton and Fischer share identical timings in this finale.

So, all in all, Litton’s performance is uneven with a first movement that drags the whole down in my book. The included filler, Liadov’s “The Enchanted Lake”, is a nice change from the ordinary inclusion of Rach’s Vocalise (or nothing at all). This work (6:45 in duration) reminds me a bit of Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead without the deep mystery. This is my first exposure to this music and the performance is effective in conveying a mysterious mood.

The recorded sound quality (SACD stereo) is also somewhat of a disappointment. It is less detailed than I like and possesses a significant amount of hall sound. The sound is rather amorphous and slightly veiled – that is until the cymbals come crashing in with excellent presence (which is at odds with the rest of the sonic picture). In addition, the orchestral foundation is less full than it ought to be and what’s there has a tendency to be a bit muddled. The recording was done by BIS’s usual team from Take 5 Productions in the Grieg Hall where many of BIS’s Bergen Symphony recordings have been made. I have come to expect better from BIS. My favorite thing about this release is the photo on the back of the booklet – it depicts the Bergen players in their black and white performance garb all holding transparent umbrellas while standing on a brick-hewn pier presumably on the North Atlantic with a large orange-hulled ship shown approaching the pier from a distance. It’s quite creative though if it is intended to make some kind of statement I don’t know what that might be. But I’ll be clear about my statement – this SACD is for ardent Litton fans only.

Copyright © 2015 Mark Novak and HRAudio.net

Performance:

Sonics (Stereo):

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Comments (6)
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Comment by Tommy Wikström - September 17, 2015 (1 of 6)

My first impressions are very positive. A romantic reading where the long melodic lines are played beautifully. Some lively parts as in the second movement gets a very exciting treatment. A notice that a lot of work has been put into orchestra intonations, dynamics and fadings. I think this release must fall into the mainstream performance category, but it is a damm good and attractive one. Much better than the overrated Lan Shui performance, also on BIS. Sound a bit upfront with less room feeling, strings slightly edgier than on DSD recordings. None of this bothers me the least! Oh how gorgeous they play the slow movement... defining moments of why I love classical music. BIS has an older third (?) recording of Rach 2 with Owain Arwel Hughes, much slower, overlooked and unfairly dismissed. That one is also a valid statement of this great Rachmaninov symnphony for me. Skip the Lan Shui and get the latest one from BIS. Pletnev on DGG is also a high scorer.

Comment by William Hecht - November 7, 2015 (2 of 6)

I've been listening to this for the last two days, on its own and in comparison with Fischer on Channel and Lan Shui on BIS. This is a much more urgent reading than either of the others, supported by a recording that's every bit as good as Channel's and, depending on whether you prefer an more upfront or more distant perspective, better than the previous effort from BIS. I personally prefer the more distant take from Singapore, but there's no question this recording fits the interpretation like hand in glove. All in all the finest Rachmaninov 2nd I've heard since Temirkanov's 1970's account with the Royal Philharmonic.

Comment by hiredfox - December 11, 2015 (3 of 6)

Well Bill, you have really set a fox amongst the chickens! With about a half-dozen versions of this symphony in my SACD collection and bearing in mind that one of them is the near perfect and almost peerless interpretation of Ivan Fischer which has been lauded the world over, you stake a claim of supremacy for this version of Litton's.

How will this help my bank balance at Yule time?

Still, if it's good enough for you who am I to argue?

I'll pop back on here later with my take on the disc for what is worth. All we need now is for Robert to announce his future recordings will be at 192kHz or even 384! Robert?

Comment by William Hecht - December 14, 2015 (4 of 6)

Well, br'er Fox (as Uncle Remus and Inspector Alleyn used to say), I recognize that my views aren't going to be universally accepted. Obviously Mark feels quite differently, some of which might result from our different listening modes, mc vs stereo, and some simply a matter of preference, I like more hall sound, he doesn't. But as to interpretation I can only say that I've loved this piece for fifty+ years, going back to the bad old days when Sergei's reputation was in the tank. As such I'm prepared to luxuriate in a somewhat slower reading that plumbs the depths a bit. What I hear as "urgent", Mark hears as slow bordering on lassitude. As for the Fischer, yes, I agree it's virtually perfect, but also somewhat soulless to my ears. It all reminds me of how inadequate words are in describing an emotional as well as intellectual reaction to a given performance. As always, to each his own.

Comment by hiredfox - December 15, 2015 (5 of 6)

Litton adopts a characteristically enthusiastic and romantic reading of the second symphony with the Bergen Philharmonic responding to every gesture with an emotion-charged high-octane performance of impressive precision and commitment, a performance that brought a smile to my face not to mention a few lumps to the throat. It is a performance that will please many and quite possibly the best yet from this combo.

Litton adopted a slow pace overall - 3 mins longer than Gergiev for example - which comes as a surprise if you check timings after the performance; there seems to be some imbalances in speeds with a slower than average exposition that takes a little time to find it’s way and pick up momentum for example but he is also slower than most in every movement.

The recording is excellent with a true-to-scale soundstage and realistic dynamic range lacking any hint of compression. Superb inner detailing picks out every instrument with precision so that every line can be followed with ease yet always in a well balanced sound field free of artificial spotlighting or zoom.

If there is a quibble from this listener it is that in stereo, PCM recordings seem to stick resolutely to the back wall of my listening room without much of a third dimensional element projecting into the listening space. 5.1 Mch probably overcomes this problem in a different way so only stereo listeners need take heed.

Many conductors settle for a more studied and philosophic reading than this notably Gergiev whose detached and urgent reading is said to reflect the true spirit of Rachmaninov’s composition and a first choice of many critics. Sadly Gergiev is let down by a really poor recording, the scale of the music seems much too great for the limitations of the Barbican Hall. It is worth recalling that Rachmaninov’s first symphony was vey poorly received and when eventually he decided to work on a new symphony it became the output of three years of very hard and concentrated effort on his part.

Fischer as always is aided by superlative recording and the inestimable appeal of his idiosyncratic take on things that always seduces in a way that persuades of its correctness. He too excels in that very special Fischer way. I can see that it will not be to everyone's taste but for those who see in him no wrong it will delight.

In summary, an excellent offering both as a performance and as a recording that deserves to be heard. It isn’t the best out there or indeed the best on SACD but decent enough. Fischer remains my personal favourite but this disc will be a fine addition to any collection.

Comment by Waveform - January 9, 2016 (6 of 6)

At first Litton's slower-side tempi were a little shock for me. But gradually his method impressed me more and more and at the beginning of the finale I was totally forgot my first thoughs.
The total time of the whole symphony is here 63'15 which is much slower than Gergiev's calculate (60'53) on LSO Live, for example. Still, the listening experience wasn't boring, rather upside down.
The highlights of this performance were the heartfelt, passionate third movement and carefully controlled finale.
In the third movement the tempo choice was simply idiomatic (15'15). The beautiful main theme of the first clarinet was sensitive and sweet. Compared to Gergiev's account this moment was quite muddy and unclear. The main theme of the finale (14'15) was also very touching and beautiful. Litton knew how to build the greatest intensity to the last pages.
Excellent surround sound, too. I have never heard so warm multichannel recording as here! For me this SACD is surely the best way to enjoy the melodic richness of the composer. Outstanding, definitely.

Performance: *****
Sonics: ***** (Multichannel)