RACHMANINOV: Symphony No. 3, in A minor, Op. 44.  Spring, Op. 20.
 3 Unaccompanied Choruses (1893-1900).

Tigram Martyrosyan, baritone (Spring);
Russian State Symphony Orchestra & Symphonic Cappella; Valery Polyansky, cond.
Chandos 9802 [F]  [DDD]  TT: 73:33

The prizes on this disc produced in 1997-8 are three a-cappella choruses that Rachmaninov composed in a six-year period before the Second Piano Concerto. The singing of them, recorded in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, is marvelously nuanced and sublimely sonorous, while the music -- if not full of tunes we've come to know and love as Rachmaninovian in his orchestral and keyboard works -- suits the texts wonderfully. These (in English translations, which a handsome program book prints in four languages, including the Cyrillic originals) are "Pantely the Healer," "Chorus of the Spirits for Don Juan," and "O Mother of God, vigilantly praying."

Spring is also a choral work, with baritone soloist, composed two years after the Second Piano Concerto, although by and large neglected in the West, perhaps because of its brief duration (just 17 minutes, at least in this performance, which gets a little slapdash toward the end). Again the chorus is a pleasure as well as a treasure, and the baritone soloist solid, but I'm uneasy about conductor Polyansky, who has served as his own producer.

The Third Symphony, which makes up the bulk of this issue, hardens that uneasiness (presumably it replaces Chandos' previous CD version by Neeme J”rvi and the London Symphony, as well as a Spring recorded with the Danish Radio Orchestra and Choir by Dmitri Kitayenko, with Jorma Hynninen as soloist). Polyansky is a protÈgÈ of Gennady Rozhdestvensky, and the orchestra here (which Polyansky has headed since 1992) seems to be his teacher's USSR Symphony with a new post-Soviet name. It is as good an orchestra as Moscow currently boasts (sorry, Mikhail Pletnyev's players sound underorganized as an ensemble and overhyped on their DG discs I've heard to date, all of them traded off).

Polyansky basically grandstands, meaning he's persuasive only in the music's beefy outbursts, and in a few agreeably startling moments when he finds a submerged line or a surprise within a chord. But time and again he misses, for example, the poignancy of Rachmaninov's repeated violin trills in the middle movement, which are the heart beat of the work. He conducts Rachmaninov from the outside looking in, sometimes at a window across which heavy drapes seem to have been drawn. Rather than a poetic conductor such as Alexander Anissimov -- on a Naxos CD of Symphony No. 3 that moved me, no matter an orchestra of lesser caliber than Chandos' RSSO -- Polyansky is a conductor in the thuggish tradition of Yevgeni Svetlanov, sort of like those Zil limos which were used to drive Soviet hierarchs to the Kremlin.

We have, after all, several digital dubs of Rachmaninov's own performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which everyone since has aimed at equaling but none since has matched, much less bettered. Sorry, but in spite of red-blooded sound with plenty of space around it, Polyansky doesn't get beyond the tryouts for this Olympic class pole-vault.

R.D. (June 2000)