Anyone who was bowled over by Gergiev's last Rachmaninov release, a superb Sym. #2, will be eager for this new one, although both the symphony and the Symphonic Dances are in danger of being over-exposed, quite a contrast from the days before the post-Soviet invasion of Russian conductors, when Eugene Ormandy and Andre Previn were the best to turn to. Now with Gergiev, Jurowski, and Petrenko firmly in place at the top of British-based conductors, we are getting the Russian classics as we've never heard them before, or at least not since the heyday of Mravinsky (who apparently didn't conduct Rachmaninov - was it White Russian antipathy in a dedicated Soviet artist?)
The refinement that Gergiev brings to all of this music, which is an antidote to the swaggering but crude Soviet stereotype, runs the danger of gilding the lily. He is very deliberate and detailed in the first movement of the Symphonic Dances, and for every gain in color and nuance, there's a loss of energy and propulsion. Rachmaninov was a wonderful orchestrator - Hollywood would have hired him in a flash - so for anyone who already knows this score well, Gergiev's new version is a delight. But newcomers should know that there are other approaches that have more pace and jazziness. The recorded sound is very good, and the orchestral playing beyond reproach. Just be prepared for grave emotions - who suspected that this score had such darkness? - and much self-conscious phrasing. Yet in its own way this is a transformative reading - a once-neglected masterpiece of post-Romanticism is made to glow with meaning.
Gergiev has been making up for another gap in Soviet music-making, the policy of ignoring Stravinsky's compositions after the great early ballets from the Firebird to the Rite of Spring. I've heard quite a number of Gergiev's concert readings of the three symphonies (Symphony of Psalms, Symphony in C, and Symphony in Three Movements - some add a fourth, the Symphonies for Wind Instruments). His way with them is powerful and a great deal more visceral than anything Stravinsky conceived of - or condoned. The wartime Symphony in Three Movements is the bleakest of the three,and the period over which it was written, 1942-45, brought Western civilization into grave peril. Despite his surroundings historically, Stravinksy was following his own course musically, as geniuses will, so the score has another side, its almost cheery neoclassical chirping and skipping. Gergiev brings vitality to these parts, but he isn't as bright or sparkling as the composer himself or Ernest Ansermet among classic recordings from the past. Still, this is a beautifully conceived reading with absolutely wonderful playing and vivid sound.
P.S. - The Gramophone didn't "get" this CD, to say the least, and thoroughly panned the Rachmaninov. Actually, I can see why, since Gergiev defies expectations. The reviewer couldn't miss the high quality of the Stravinsky, however.