How To Buy Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2

Considered by some to be the most romantic orchestral work of all time, Rachmaninov’s luscious symphony is the perfect piece to get you in the mood for love and romance.

During the autumn of 1906 Rachmaninov, worried by political unrest in Russia, left his day job as conductor of the Moscow Imperial Opera and moved to Dresden where he could devote all his time to composing. He set up home with his wife and baby daughter and it was there that he wrote his Second Symphony. The first performance, which took place in St Petersburg in February 1908, was enthusiastically received.

One might be forgiven for thinking that this extremely popular work was ever thus. But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that it established itself as part of the core symphonic repertoire. Prior to then it had been considered too long and was subjected to some disfiguring cuts, sanctioned, it has to be said, by the composer.

It was André Previn’s 1973 recording with the London Symphony Orchestra that more than any other proved that Rachmaninov’s score should be played complete. Not only does its age warrant the vintage recording tag but its spectacular sound quality does, too. The glorious third movement features the inimitable clarinet playing of Jack Brymer and with Previn’s inherent grasp of the entire score this one certainly has something of an X-factor about it.

Another fine British orchestra, the Philharmonia, with Mariss Jansons at the helm, lays a firm, yet deeply romantic foundation in its interpretation of the first movement. However, its briskly taken second movement is not quite as technically assured as Mikhail Pletnev’s St Petersburg forces. Purposeful playing is the name of the game here but not at the expense of passion, which, although generally discreet, is clearly apparent in the finale.

Pletnev’s compatriot Vladimir Ashkenazy takes a similar approach and greatly benefits from an even more pristine orchestra – one of the advantages being the Concertgebouw’s succulent strings. A winning partnership then, as is the case with another recording which, it seems, is quickly gaining momentum – the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer. The rather tentative start of the first movement, mainly due to the somewhat shallow sound, develops into a reading of great intensity and drive.

So who says romance is dead? It’s alive and well in this symphony, which has it by the bucket load! And of our five versions it is André Previn and the LSO who deliver just the right amount, so to them goes a dozen red roses.

The Contenders 

Philharmonia Orchestra/ Mariss Jansons
Maestro Jansons really has the measure of this beautiful work.
Chandos CHAN 8520 

Russian National Orchestra/ Mikhail Pletnev
Pletnev’s interpretation is low in sentiment but high in energy.
DG 439 8882 

Concertgebouw Orchestra/ Vladimir Ashkenazy
Ashkenazy in Rachmaninov is synonymous with quality.
Decca 448 1162 

Budapest Festival Orchestra/ Iván Fischer
A gem from this thriving Hungarian partnership.
Channel Classics CG 06015 

The One To Own 

Rachmaninov Symphony No.2 LSO/André Previn 
Since its original release, Previn’s 1973 London Symphony Orchestra account has been a perennial favourite and this stunning re-mastered edition confirms even more its status as one of the greatest recordings of the last century. 
EMI Classics 566 9822