REVIEW (CD): S. Rachmaninoff – Symphony no. 2 / Ivan Fischer; Budapest Festival Orchestra (2004)

Starting off my virgin album review with a familiar work, Rachmaninoff’s second symphony. This work means especially much to myself as it was on the programme of the second symphonic concert I ever attended, back in my early teens.

Written in 1906-07, the second symphony of Sergei Rachmaninoff remains to be among the most lastingly popular of works written by the composer, alongside the second and third piano concerti. Composed in a period of despair and hopelessness following the poor reception of his first symphony, even the later 1901 success of his second piano concerto was not sufficient to help him regain full confidence in symphonic writing. Interestingly, it was not these successful works but his later, comparatively obscure unaccompanied choral works – Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910) and Vespers (1915) which brought the composer genuine fulfilment. Speaking of the former, Rachmaninoff recognised that “not for a long time (had he) written anything with such pleasure.”

Overall, this recording is wonderfully nuanced and blended throughout. The opening line played by the lower strings is lush and even in tone, with subtle swells well executed – its beauty is compounded by the dark and sweet tone of the violins’ entry (0:20) (which tends to be on the bright side in most other recordings). Fischer’s choice of tempi is undoubtedly a huge strength here in the first movement, with “restraint” being the noun coming to mind. The buildup by the strings beginning at 1:15 is unhurried and in fact atypically less brisk, avoiding the typical rush. The fluidity of tempi is masterfully controlled, with any time taken (3:14-3:15 for example) well balanced by slight nudges forward. Worthy of mention here (and perhaps frequently overlooked) would be the celli and double bass with conscientious pizzicatos in the undercurrent (starting 4:28), well supporting the melodic direction in the upper strings and acting as the impetus of the music.

In the fiery second movement, the orchestra was energetic and fully committed. A well executed and coordinated glissando in the first and second violins 5 bars after Figure 29 (1:37) presents a coy interlude. This led in to an unusually slow section beginning 1:58, which came across slightly over-cautious for con moto, especially with the col legno in the strings sounding too intentional. The orchestra was beautifully balanced, with the xylophone (6:27) sounding crisp and bright over the orchestra (it does often get obscured by overzealous brass or poor instrument placement sometimes). The resolute entry of the brass (9:19 and 9:38) presented a fresh contrast to the frenzy preceding it, with disciplined playing effectively reinstating a solemn mood from the first movement.

The third movement, Adagio, opened with the tutti violas presenting the scalic line with a fine tone. The composer’s indicated hairpins were well observed, albeit the tenutos on the downbeats of the second and third bars were accented a bit too heavily for my taste. The clarinet solo was phrased beautifully, with a tinge of nostalgia embedded, resounding over the strings and leading the accompanying strings, but never sounding overbearing. The fermata on the rest before Figure 52 was boldly realised by Fischer with a pause well over 5 seconds (7:10-7:16), recalling the concept of ‘ma’ (silence) widely written on by Takemitsu, who expounded on the idea that the beauty of music is largely attributed to the silence within.

The beauty of the last movement in this recording is perhaps how it feels like an amalgamation of all the material introduced in the previous three movements — the expansiveness and fluidity of the first movement, the excitement and organised chaos of the second movement, the richness of the third was all reunited into a functional whole. Fischer’s refined artistry undoubtedly led the orchestra and the audience through an auditory throwback of sorts. Kudos to the cymbals at the modulation to E major (8:46), whose shattering rebounds after the initial strike announced the arrival of a new section with renewed strength and gusto. (This again is demonstrated at the modulation to G major at 9:14.)

The consistency in tone of the strings, reliability of the brass and sensitivity of the winds have long been defining features of the Budapest Festival Orchestra since its genesis in 1983. Led by its founder himself in this sublime recording, there is no doubt to the stature of this legendary partnership of Fischer and his marvellous ensemble, which is ever so responsive to every little nuance and detail.

Listen to this recording here:
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