The March 1897 premiere under the direction of Aleksandr Glasunov was a spectacular failure that prompted a shower of criticism, including Cesar Cui's oft-cited quip that the work would thrill "the inhabitants of hell." The symphony's reception deeply affected Rachmaninov, plunging him into a long depression, during which time he all but ceased composing and instead began to hone his skills as a conductor. Although the symphony was never performed again during the composer's lifetime, it has made a comeback since its rediscovery in 1945. And rightly so: As this recording aptly demonstrates, the work has much to offer the listener (a majority of the initial negative reception was likely the result of Glasunov's supposed intoxicated state at the premiere and the disastrous outcome this undoubtedly had on the performance). This work will be refreshing and perhaps a bit surprising to those familiar only with Rachmaninov's later output. The debt to Chaikovsky and Borodin is quite distinct, especially noticeable in Rachmaninov's concern for formal and motivic unity, although the seeds of the rapturous melody and thick, sonorous textures of his more mature orchestral style lurk not far beneath the surface.
In this recording, Mariss Jansons leads the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, where he has been Associate Principal Conductor since 1985. One of Russia's most venerable and highly respected ensembles, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (known during Soviet times as the Leningrad Philharmonic), cultivated its unsurpassed skill during five decades under the baton of the legendary Evgeny Mravinsky. Listeners of Jansons recording will not be disappointed: the orchestra still packs a mighty punch and its dark, string-dominated sound is the perfect match for Rachmaninov's music. The orchestra's precision shines through most remarkably in the symphony's extroverted finale, and also makes for some thrilling passages in the development of the first movement.
Paired with the First Symphony on this recording is the composer's symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead (Ostrov myortvykh). The work dates from a period of increasing political unrest in Imperial Russia that prompted Rachmaninov to resign from his conducting post at the Bolshoi Theater in February 1906 and spend an increasing amount of time abroad. After first exiling himself to Pisa, the composer then settled briefly in Dresden, where he completed The Isle of the Dead in 1909. The work draws its title and inspiration from a painting by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin, whose eerily gloomy depiction of a pall-draped casket being transported by boat to a remote island captured Rachmaninov's imagination. The work bears a number of distinctive features: The opening section is set in 5/8 meter, evocative of the gentle lilting of the boat depicted in Böcklin's painting. The Isle of the Dead is also one of the first works in which Rachmaninov quotes the Dies irae — the chant that laces so many of his later compositions. Moreover, the soaring melody and luxurious textures that were latent in the First Symphony reveal themselves in full-blown magnificence in The Isle of the Dead, making the two works offered on this CD a most satisfying pairing. As with the symphony, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic performs beautifully in this work and Jansons delivers Rachmaninov's rich sonorities brilliantly, if at times the woodwind and brass color is a bit covered. The current recording is one of EMI's recent re-releases on their budget line "Encore," making this CD an all-around exceptional buy.
Kevin Michael Bartig
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill