Rachmaninoff's name is obviously strongly associated with pianistic performances and piano compositions. This fact, very often, leads to put in background, if not to underrate, except the "Vespers", his non-pianistic compositions.
As a consequence of the disastrous Saint Petersburg 1897 première of his First Symphony, Rachmaninoff entered a long depressive crisis. Only by means of psychotherapy he was able to recover self-confidence in his composing capacities; it is not by chance that his second Piano Concerto (1901) is dedicated to his psychologist Nikolai Dahl.
This Second Symphony was composed during Rachmaninoff's retire in Dresden, where he and his family lived nearly as hermits, from 1906-07 winter to 1909-10 winter. It was a period of intense study and composition.
The first sketches did not satisfied a not yet self-confident Rachmaninoff, but, at the end, the new symphony was successfully premiered in St. Petersburg on 8 February 1908, under the baton of the composer himself (one of the main causes of the First Symphony flop is commonly attributed to Alexander Glazunov's bad conducting of the premiere).
The full success greatly contributed to Rachmaninoff's definitive psychological healing.
The symphony is constructed in the pattern established by Borodin and Balakirev, with an introductory first movement, the Scherzo as second movement, preceding the third slow movement - where the "dramatic sequence" reaches its climax -, while the fourth movement has a "recapitulative" function of all the themes previously exposed.
I like this work, attentively constructed, heartfelt, rich of interesting melodic ideas, harmonic solutions and orchestral colours; in particular, it is not "overloaded" of notes as, on the contrary, other Rachmaninoff's compositions are.
Not only the formal structure, but, and most important, also the alternation between intense sadness and serene, joyful, moments and accents is so idiomatically and truly Russian: very involving!
The great Kurt Sanderling (1912-2011) masters the idiom and he gives us a well balanced, warm and intimate interpretation. He had already recorded in 1956, for DG, the cut version of the work. Here, he obviously presents - as usual since 1968 first commercial recording of the complete symphony by Kletzky-Decca - the complete version (66'20"), that is the one which allows the work to correctly breath and to fully express its refined sentimental contents.
The understanding with the Philharmonia Orchestra is perfect (Sanderling was appointed Conductor Emeritus of the Orchestra), resulting in an attentive, precise and involving performance.
The 1984 DDD sound of this studio recording is excellent, pure and airy.
The thin booklet contains a brief, but interesting, account, in German, by Gottfried Blumenstein, also translated in English and French.
In my opinion, the direct competitor of this interpretation is the 1988 Gennady Rozhdestvensky-LSO recording, which gives us another great reading of this outstanding work.