This is an eagerly anticipated release. It didn't take long for everyone to realize that the Royal Liverpool Phil. had a musical star in Vasily Petrenko, their boyish thirtysomething conductor. He debuted with the orchestra in 2004 at the age of 28 with brilliant promise. No one spoke of promise after a concert or two; they were already floored. Here was a major talent on the order, perhaps, of Bernstein and Karajan. the musicians loved Petrenko as much as the critics, because he made them sound like heroes.
Petrenko recently rose from Naxos to a major label, EMI, and he launched a Rachmaninov symphony cycle with a recording of Sym. #3 that was revelatory, elevating a score that many thought was inferior to the more famous Rachmaninov Second. Here is the Second, and Petrenko brings to it the same warmth and intuitive musical gifts that made the earlier record so captivating. Still, he faces a challenge, because this is a score that has gone from relative obscurity - when I was in college, almost no one played it in America but Eugene Ormandy, a personal friend of Rachmaninov's - to a standard in the orchestral repertoire. In just the recent past there have been acclaimed recordings by Antonio Pappano and Valery Gergiev. the latter was especially fine, as you'd expect from the premier conductor from post-soviet Russia and a world-class London Sym.
By comparison, Petrenko can't offer a world-class orchestra, but it doesn't matter. From the very first note this is a personal reading whose every gesture makes you lean forward, eager to hear what comes next. Swoopy, syrupy Rachaninov disappears. We are in a plaintive world filled with pain and ecstasy. the rise and fall of emotion brings you to the verge of tears, an astonishing thing when the music is so familiar and presents such a sentimental surface. (Imagine crying over 'Scheherazade.') Petrenko has no rivals in finding new depths in this music; the great brass outbursts in the first movement are electrifying, as if an emotional volcano is erupting.
Some great performances render any verbal description pointless, and this is one. the other fine recordings that I know - no just Gergiev and Pappano but Ormandy, Bychkov, and the classic Previn on EMI from 1972 - are left behind. I'm overjoyed to see Petrenko fulfill his potential. EMI's sound is fine; the additional fillers of three dances from Rachmaninov's opera Aleko are appealing curtain raisers. Needless to say, this is a must-listen for anyone who loves this music.