As the Santa Fe listener kindly acknowledges in his review, I recently blind-tested ten versions of the "Isle of the Dead" for another classical review website.
I was initially daunted by the task, but in the event I have to say that I found it both remarkably enjoyable and remarkably reassuring how easily I was able to decide upon a hierarchy of quality - and this one easily came out on top. I was delighted when my suspicions were confirmed that my favourite was indeed this recording by Petrenko; it is extraordinary how good the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic now sounds under their trio of distinguished conductors (Pesek, Mackerras and Petrenko himself) and for me this disc becomes one of the finest on my shelves.
The opening of the "Isle of the Dead" is crucial: a mood of grim inevitability must grip the listener, who should see and hear Charon's oars dip steadily, in relentless 5/8 time, into the black waters of the Styx, as per the mysterious painting by Arnold Böcklin. Rachmaninov saw it in 1907 and it inspired him to compose his musical evocation the following year. If the rhythm is too fleet and the craft drifts unsteadily, the requisite mood is lost. While this piece is episodic, with identifiable interludes as the soul reminisces and struggles to make sense of its fate, there must be an over-arching sense of shape to unify the experience; some of the performances in the ten I listened to fall into the trap of stressing transient drama at the expense of musical unity, while others simply fail rise above a timid fidelity to the score and deliver no punch at crucial points.
Of the four I really liked, only one was compromised by the sound: Ansermet and l'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande are recorded in hissy, strident mono but theirs is a reading of such integrity and musicality that it transcends those limitations. However, if you want the finest modern sound, three are in a class apart, by virtue of their combination of sound quality and artistic achievement: Batiz on Naxos (see my review), the celebrated Ashkenazy version on Decca, and the one currently under review. They are clearly self-recommending and individual taste must be the arbiter of choice, although I have a clear personal favourite, and it is this Petrenko recording. (Some favour the famous Reiner/Chicago recording; it does not do it for me; my blind-listening notes read: "rushed, yet nerveless, like a hyperactive patient with a failing pulse. We scud sporadically over shallow waters. The orchestra suffers from poor intonation, especially in the woodwinds." Nor do I think he really delivers at climactic points.)
Petrenko achieves a miracle of interpretation and the disc is sonically superlative. Its timing (20:55), phrasing, control and understanding of the dynamic relationship between the disparate sections are all ideal. As much as I enjoyed the other three discs in my top category, this was the only one to give me genuine goose bumps as I listened. This is passionate, thrilling orchestral direction and playing, from the overwhelming tragedy of the soul's agony to the searing poignancy of the central section, full of yearning nostalgia for times past. Every mood is embraced from febrile panic to desperate regret; no other version manages this kind of range. When, in the music's closing stages, the hammer blows which seal the soul's fate yield to pitiless ticking of a universal clock, the effect is intensely dramatic and the listener is made to appreciate anew the wonder of this extraordinary composition.
The "Symphonic Dances" are equally thrilling: taut, intense and nervy, then suddenly lyrical and voluptuous; the sensibility of Rachmaninov the hyper-sensitive Russian Romantic is perfectly captured. "The Rock" might be a relatively immature work and was poorly received by the sniffy, parochial British critics when it was performed in London, but it remained a favourite of the composer all his life and instantly reveals his gift of manipulating swirling, Impressionistic colours even if there is an element of repetitiveness and some lack of invention in the variations. My only previous acquaintance with this work was the excellent Decca Eloquence disc of this and the ill-fated First Symphony with, once more, l'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Walter Weller; this version here is obviously in superior sound and takes a sharper, snappier approach which perhaps papers over any longueurs without sacrificing its yearning quality.
If the stature of this recording is indicative of things to come, I am really looking forward to future issues by the same team - such as the new Rachmaninov Piano Concertos 2 & 3, with Trpceski, which I have now ordered and eagerly await (see my review).