I've read some unflattering reviews of this set. However, I enjoyed this set. I think the performance of the first symphony is brilliant (much better than Ashkenazy). The last movement is very exciting. Lovely performance of the string orchestra version of the Vocalise included. I've never really got on with the third symphony. For the second symphony, Pletnev on DG is worth a try.
The year 2013 gave us some good recordings of Rachmaninov's First Symphony. Slatkin with his Detroit band (on Naxos), Petrenko in rainy Liverpool (on Warner/EMI) and Shui on BIS from Singapore (on BIS) all tackled this work recently. They do great jobs making this wonderful symphony, which caused Rachmaninov almost to take his own life and gave him a writers block and an nervous break down altogether, available which is as good as his other symphonic works. The Shui for instance is so polished and so beautifully recorded, it really nearly sounds like sweet chocolate. But that isn't the whole picture of Rachmaninov. Back in the 80s Ashkenazy and the great Concertgebouw Orchestra gave some performances and a subsequent recording on Decca of how raw this work can sound. Since then every sharp edge, every dissonant, every hysteria has been polished away and we've reached the point that every new recording of this symphony sounds the same. Sonics are great, but the performances don't have any pepper. It's like Coca Cola without the gas. So, if you'd think of buying 1 version of this symphony (or the cycle of three) consider this release, recorded in the 1990s I think, by this forceful Moscow band under the, relatively unknown - in the `West' that is - conductor Pavel Kogan. It all sounds a bit like the older conductor Vladimir Gnedash drove his orchestra into extremes with Lyatoshinsky, it's so full of energy, it grabs you by the throat. Here you get the real raw emotions, the near hysteria, sometimes you'd even think, is this Scriabin or Rach?, a real Russian sound before the time every good orchestra sounds the same - like every other good pilsner tastes like Heineken - with blaring trumpets, near out of tune woodwind and feverish string playing. But don't think the sweeter side of this symphony is underplayed or run through, it isn't, it gets great attention and great detailed playing. The pricing is ridiculously cheap so nothing can keep you away from doing what I did: buying all three symphonies and listen to them. And after that you'll find every other recording bland and flawed and won't be in need any more for another recording.
Previn made a number of recordings with the LSO when he was their Principal Conductor in the 70s which remain unsurpassed to this day, and these Rachmaninov Symphonies are high on the list, particularly the 2nd with its great Adagio. The Symphonies are big expansive works which require vision and a firm hold on the reins to bring off. Previn is faultless. Listen to the end of the 3rd's last movement to hear the thrilling, beautifully controlled acceleration in tempo leading to the orchestra's final ecstatic shudder. Also included here are superlative recordings of the Symphonic Dances and the Isle of the Dead. If you only know Rachmaninov through the 2nd Piano Concerto, I would urge you to investigate these exceptional discs.