Symphony No. 2
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle Conductor
LSO Live LS00851
The LSO has made many distinguished recordings of this symphony over the years but this is up with the best of them; beautifully recorded in SACD sound that completely belies its origination in a pair of concerts at The Barbican in 2019.
This is such a defining work of Rachmaninov’s, needing a true sense of its architecture (especially the enormous first movement) without getting bogged down in the temptation just to wallow in the big tunes and lush orchestral sonorities. Rattle achieves this superbly. He never lets the tempo sag while always giving the orchestra the space to enjoy the detail.
Rattle likes a rallentando in this most romantic of symphonies. He is prepared to dwell on a cadence but then he moves the music on again, so that it constantly feels like a wave pattern – oceanic in its breadth. The second movement Allegro Molto scampers along at the start but then draws back to allow some contemplation before running off again. The judgement of speed and dynamic is masterly. He does not ask for loudness just for the sake of it but he is prepared to let the volume dwindle to the most expectant hush.
The biggest of big tunes third movement, so cleverly crafted by Rachmaninov that it seems to be a melody that should never end, is caressed by the LSO. Chris Richard’s opening clarinet solo is sumptuous, with every phrase relished as much as breath will allow. Rattle picks the strings up from Richards as if they are floating. It is hard to imagine a more sympathetic reading.
The real glory that distinguishes it from so many others is the interweaving of the wind lines. So often the delicacy of the writing is swamped by tidal strings but here Rattle emphasises the interplay behind them. We are reminded that the symphony was written at the same time as Debussy was at his most eloquent. Rachmaninov prefigures Ravel’s wind textures of a decade and more later, something that very few conductors in the last fifty years have drawn attention to.
The LSO were not to know this at the time but releasing the disc in the pandemic months, when so much of the emerging music is necessarily small scale, is profoundly welcome. Rach 2 is the ultimate comfort music and they make bleak days much more bearable. Even if you already have a dozen recordings, this one shines.