Top Ear

A Marvellous Rach Symphony 2 From An Unexpected Source

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Jeremy Lee writes

Semyon Bychkov recorded quite a number of discs for Philips in the 80s and 90s, few of them particularly remarkable or interesting (highlights include a crushing Shostakovich 5 and 11 with the Berlin Philharmonic in its prime, though that’s more due to the Berliners’ massive sonority and the recording’s huge dynamic range than it is due to Bychkov’s direction).  So it’s quite a nice surprise to report that his Rachmaninov 2 is one of the great ones, and I’m saying this taking storied versions such as Previn, Jansons, Temirkanov, Ashkenazy, Maazel and the more recent Ivan Fischer into account.

One of the most crucial elements in this symphony, as with most of Rachmaninov’s music, is an unfailing sense of hot-blooded lyricism.  The melodies in this symphony, though unbelievably pretty and touching at times, are considerably lengthy and tend to ramble under incompetent hands.  Besides a conductor who can shape these long melodies songfully without losing the music’s architecture, the symphony requires an orchestra that can sustain the expressive intensity and offer a magic combination of tonal richness and textural clarity so that the lush melodies can really soar while keeping the textures clear and unclogged.  So before you run away after reading the words “Orchestre de Paris” on the album cover, let me at once say that in this recording at least, the orchestra really does have all of those things, and much more:  impressive power at the climaxes, perfect ensemble balance with a very firm bass, and sparkling virtuosity.  Even the strings, often a sore point with French orchestras, are blessed with a rich and sweet tone that never turns overly weighty, a middling ground between the spectrum of the chrome-plated and heavy Berlin strings (under Maazel) and the undernourished Royal Liverpool Philharmonic strings (under Petrenko).  As hard as it may be to believe, in terms of quality of playing, as I will demonstrate throughout my review, the Parisians completely match up with the illustrious orchestras that have played this symphony (Concertgebouw, LSO, Berlin Philharmonic, St. Petersburg Philharmonic, etc.).  I’m completely serious here:  all you need to do is to listen.

With the possible quibbles about the orchestra out of the way, what we have is an interpretation that not only enraptures the listener with its songfulness and sensitive treatment of the melodies, but also never fails to thrill with its enthusiasm and boundless energy.  The first movement’s slow introduction has rarely sounded so refreshing, especially compared to most other versions who treat it as a funeral dirge, and the main subjects so flowing.  (Incidentally the exposition repeat is retained.)  But the best part concerns the development, with baleful horn and lower brass fanfares above swirling strings that sound like wounded animals, leading to a hair-raising climax with the very prominent percussion at full tilt.  The coda, meanwhile, gathers momentum inexorably after the Piu Mosso marking and at the very end gets so superheated that the added bass drum whack (and boy does the percussionist whack it!) becomes an organic response to the preceding tumult and the only way to provide a satisfactory grounding of the tension, though in most cases I prefer having it without the added whack.  Bychkov opens the Scherzo at a really dazzling pace, and the quality of the playing displayed despite the fast tempo (perfect ensemble and maintenance of tone quality) is carried onwards to one of the fastest renditions of the tricky string fugue on disc (making it resemble, to some extent, Shostakovich 4), a challenge that the Parisian strings relish.  At 14:41 Bychkov’s view of the Adagio is a broad one, but he shapes the movement with affecting poetry, and it’s here where the strings really shine with their lush tone and passionate perorations.  Very fine solos from the clarinet and horn round up a most lovely and memorable movement.

Then comes to the finale, to me the highlight of the performance.  Sometimes I wonder why nobody bothers to take it at a driving speed like Strauss’ Don Juan (and therefore highlighting the surprising similarities between the two), but Bychkov does come very close.  Again, the dazzling tempo poses no problems for the orchestra (maybe Fischer’s Budapest forces muster more clarity and ensemble precision at a slower tempo).  Then comes the luscious second subject which Bychkov again displays his mastery of Rachmaninovian lyricism at a tempo that starts out only a hair slower than the first subject.  All goes wonderfully, and when we reach the final statement of the second subject, initially taken at a tempo no slower than the preceding music, Bychkov broadens the music to reach a glorious climax with strings and brass playing their heart out (okay, maybe the Berlin and St. Petersburg brass stand out more) and the timpani really pounding out its rhythm.  And just about when you think Bychkov and the orchestra has nothing left to give, the coda gains new-found energy (with a very thrilling Piu Mosso tempo) and races irrepressibly to the finish, sort of like how Karajan flew through the coda of the finale of Mahler 5.

The full sonics, never glossy, complement the exciting performance beautifully.  The fact that is currently out of print (as with most of Bychkov’s recordings, though a SHM-CD Japanese reissue is due soon) and the lack of a coupling should not deter you from listening to or trying to obtain this magnificent performance of Rachmaninov’s evergreen symphony, one where beautiful playing, unabashed lyricism and all-stops-out thrills abound plenty.  Personally I return to this recording more often than any other Rach 2, and after you give it a listen I suppose that you will do the same, too.


  • Album name:  Rachmaninov:  Symphony No. 2
  • Performers:  Semyon Bychkov (conductor);  Orchestre de Paris
  • Label:  Philips 432 101-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time: 58:20

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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