Symphony No. 3.
Leonard Slatkin, cond; Detroit SO
NAXOS 8.573051 (74:19)
I had high hopes for this release, based on the fine Rachmaninoff Second that Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony had recorded for Naxos in 2009. And surely few conductors have lived with these scores longer than Slatkin, who recorded a widely praised Rachmaninoff cycle with the St. Louis Symphony in the 1970s. Moreover, the 2009 recording captured very nicely the excellent acoustics of Detroit’s Orchestra Hall.
Alas, something has gone amiss in these accounts of Rachmaninoff’s last two works. It’s not really Slatkin’s fault; he gives middle-of-the-road, perhaps unexceptional readings, with comfortable tempos and with no self-indulgent mannerisms. He takes the exposition repeat in the symphony. He pays particular attention to inner voices, usually a constructive approach to Rachmaninoff’s richly scored music. But something sounds wrong. Normally, it’s good when everything’s audible; but here, it sounds as if the whole orchestra was at stage front— there’s no sense of aural perspective. In the second theme of the Third Symphony’s opening movement, for example, the accompanying clarinet/bassoon offbeats are
prominent. Yes, too, there’s a gratifying immediacy to the bass—the timpani, bass drum, and tam-tam are impressive—but there’s no space around the instruments, and after a while the effect is stifling.
It must inevitably be added that the Detroit Symphony, while a fine orchestra, is not the Philadelphia Orchestra of the 1960s; it lacks the last measure of fullness in the string sound and polish in the wind solos that Eugene Ormandy got in his classic versions of these works. Paradoxically, the Second Symphony is a more forgiving piece in this regard: The very richness of the scoring works in the orchestra’s favor. But in these late scores, and in the
in particular, Rachmaninoff achieves a very different effect, one of orchestral virtuosity that exposes every minute flaw in the playing. This characteristic is only accentuated here by the close recording. Thus, we hear woodwind figurations that don’t quite dovetail perfectly, a saxophone that goes a wee bit flat, and other infelicities. (Note: the booklet carries a complete DSO personnel list; why, then, is the saxophone soloist not named anywhere?)
I like the conducting on this disc; but, after spending far more time listening than I do for a typical review, I find that the sound is a deal-breaker. I note, incidentally, that while Blanton Alspaugh was the producer for both this CD and that of the Second, there was a different engineer. Finally, the competition is too strong—most recently by Noseda on Chandos in the symphony (
35:3) and (despite some excesses on the part of the conductor) Litton on BIS in the
(36:6)—to allow serious consideration of such a problematic recording. Reluctantly, then, not recommended.
Richard A. Kaplan