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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A stupendous disc, 6 Mar 2010
By 
Ralph Moore "Ralph operaphile" (Bishop's Stortford, UK) - See all my reviews
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As the Santa Fe listener kindly acknowledges in his review on Amazon.com, 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).
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another homerun for Mr. P, 1 Mar 2010
By 
Steen Mencke "s.mencke dk" (Denmark) - See all my reviews
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Reviewing the disc in November last year of the "Symphonic Dances" and "The Isle of the Dead" made by the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski, I gave high praise to the treatment of "The Isle" but politely requested a tad more darkness and drama in the danses. Et voila, Vasily Petrenko scrambles to the rescue providing just what the doctor ordered. These years the RLPO just seems to go from strength to strength, and still in this new recording the players really manage to out-do themselves. A first class musical communicator, Petrenko infuses this provincial orchestra with the searing fire of his intensely Russian spirit - a thing so crusially important to the works of Rachmaninov - conjuring up a sound that rings genuinely true.

From the first notes of the essentially sunny first Symphonic Dance it is obvious that this is a reading dominated by the darker hues of the musical palette, which, quite apart from suiting the music well, lends an added beauty and nobility to all three dances. The Petrenko hallmark of the second dance is a highly volatile rubato that I doubt is hinted at in the score, but which, upon closer inspection, I find quite endearing and somehow more Russian than the classic approach. In the third dance the midnight bell has well and truly tolled, and only those long devoid of life are left to do the dancing. And what a ballet we are given! Here and there the tone is positively menacing and the wavy centre section, in all its splendour, is as icy as a Siberian winter wind. The parallels to Berlioz' witches' sabbath of the Symphonie Fantastique are more than usually clear - and not just through the use of the Dies Irae motive. The music radiates a meticulously controled intensity I have rarely come upon before, providing a tour de force that I doubt will be trumped any time soon.

Petrenko's reading of the "Isle of the Dead" is on a par with Jurowski's, the slow beginning perhaps even a touch more ominous in its silky mesmerism, and though no punches are pulled in the struggle between light and darkness of the crescendo, like Jurowski Petrenko never allows it to deteriorate into the bar room brawl found in other recordings. The athmosphere of the inspirational painting by Arnold Böchlin is there in all its colour - though I understand the version of the picture Rachmaninov saw back in 1909 and took to heart was in fact in black and white. What an imagination!

"The Rock", written in 1894 when the composer was barely 21, is a setting of Chekhov's "Na puti" (On the Road), depicting an encounter between a young girl and an old man, who, before they part never to meet again, relates to the girl the sad story of his life. It is clearly a work of youth, but, like all of Rachmaninov's music, masterly orchestrated and given a warm and sympathetic reading by the Liverpool team.

Technically this is without a doubt the finest Petrenko issue so far. The sound is both supple and full, with kettledrum fff's that'll put cracks in your furniture, yet clear and sharply defined without a hint of distortion or restrictions of volume (unlike his two discs of Shostakovich symphonies). Full marks to the recording engineers.

Great value at a very reasonable price.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Flawless production, inspired playing and conducting, 27 Dec 2010
By 
Charles Voogd (Underwaterland) - See all my reviews
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My reference recording for the Symphonic Dances and The Isle of Dead are Ashkenazy's wonderful recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Decca form the 1980s. That recording, from the decade they only just started recording digitally in the Concertgebouw, is super special. It has a weight even this new recording by Petrenko and the absolutely stunning Royal Liverpool Philharmonic doesn't bring. Listen to the first bars. With Petrenko you get a huge climax with the entry of timpani and bass drum and it's repeats. With Ashkenazy you get that overwhelming extra only the Concertgebouw hall can bring. Deep, very deep bass on the bass drum, physically exciting timpani right into your face. So it sounds as if the Concertgebouw orchestra is weightier, mightier and just straight right into the music and it seems the Liverpudlians do need some more time to adjust to Rachmaninov's sound world.
But that's not so; this interpretation is just as good, great, overwhelming and interesting as Ashkenazy's. I wonder `how should the Concertgebouw orchestra sound like in the Liverpool Philharmonic hall'? The reverberation the Liverpool orchestra gets in it's hall is markedly shorter than the Concertgebouw recording, that too gives the impression the Liverpudlians do play with lesser violin players, but I think that's isn't at all true. It just the recording - which is praised everywhere - that gives this impression.
With The Isle of Death it's the same thing; everything the Liverpool orchestra does is magnificent, the rocking of the waves, the grumblings deep down in the orchestra: stunning. But listening after that to the Concertgebouw recording again gives the same impression as with the dances. It seems somewhat thinner, but it isn't. The playing in the orchestra fantasy The Rock is impressive too.
So if you're a huge fan of Petrenko, or happen to love new recordings, or are just very patriotic, or if you're new to this repertoire: the choice for this Avie record is a choice you'd never regret. If you want the extra decibel, the weight, depth and somewhat more clarity around the woodwinds: go for the budget Decca recording. It's exemplary.
I now own both and like them both very much.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Only to be ranked with the best versions of these works, 20 Oct 2013
By 
I. Giles (Argyll, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This very well recorded disc made in 2008/9 is one of a continuing series of remarkably successful recordings made by the galvanised Liverpool orchestra. On this occasion Petrenko and his first class orchestra tackle a trio of Rachmaninov works spanning the whole of his composing career. In so doing Petrenko and his colleagues enter a fiercely competitive market featuring many of the finest conductors and orchestras.

The earliest work featured here is the last to be played on the disc. The symphonic poem, The Rock, was written when the composer was only 20 years old but already he had attracted the attention of Tchaikovsky who was keen to conduct it. The work does not betray Rachmaninov's youth in any way being a masterly example of orchestration applied to a tightly argued composition. The music is based on a short poem which related the meeting of two travellers at an inn during a raging snowstorm. The one, a middle aged and lonely man, relates a tale of his life to the other, an attractive young woman. Hoping to further the relationship the next morning the man finds only the woman's sleigh tracks outside. He continues to gaze after her, appearing to turn into a white rock as he becomes encased with the falling snow. This piece is played with compelling conviction and more than matches other versions heard on disc so far.

The disc opens with the Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninov's final composition and a work of compelling maturity. The conductor, Svetlanov, considers this work to be, in effect, a symphony such is its compositional form. Alternatively one can consider it as illustrating three stages in life's journey those being noon, evening and midnight at Rachmaninov had originally planned. The work was originally written as a two-piano work and that version is certainly the equal of the full orchestral version as here and which is more usually played. The two versions are complementary and are not to be compared to either's disadvantage as they bring out quite different characteristics of the music and to different effect. The performance by Petrenko and his orchestra on this disc is quite the equal of the best on disc and has a blazing drive and commitment which reflects Petrenko's determination to impart a genuine Russian sound to this orchestra when playing Russian music. As a consequence this is an appropriately Russian sounding and compelling performance of one of Rachmaninov's greatest 'symphonic' works.

The Isle of the Dead, a compositional masterpiece, comes between these two works and this dark work based on a painting showing Charon, the ferryman of Greek mythology, rowing across the River Styx to transport his dead passenger from the land of the living to the land of the dead. This, like the Symphonic dances, has had many fine recordings but this is as fine as any of its best predecessors and the music rises to its climatic points impressively.

I would therefore suggest that this very fine disc deserves to be considered with the finest currently available by any potential purchasers.
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Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances, The Isle of the Dead & The Rock
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances, The Isle of the Dead & The Rock by Vasily Petrenko Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
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