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One of the highlights of Leonard Slatkin's young tenure as music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is that he's gotten the orchestra back on CD. Thanks to Slatkin's ties to the Naxos label and a $900,000 grant to the DSO from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the conductor's artistic plans, the DSO has embarked on a series of recording projects.
Already issued are Naxos discs devoted to composer Michael Daugherty and recorded during music director emeritus Neeme Jarvi's tenure, and Hannibal Lokumbe's "Dear Mrs. Parks" conducted by Thomas Wilkins. (A Slatkin-led Triple Concerto by Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain has been issued by Koch.)
But the beautifully realized new CD of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 is a landmark (**** out of four stars, in stores Tuesday), the first Slatkin-DSO recording for Naxos and the first in a series devoted to Rachmaninoff's three symphonies. Coupled with Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise, Op. 24, No. 14," the Second was taped during concerts last fall.
A grand staple of the repertoire lasting almost an hour, the symphony's lush textures, aching melodies and monumental vistas ask a lot from a conductor and orchestra. Slatkin strikes an ideal balance between indulging the fleshy textures and italicizing the many subtle details that get lost in overly syrupy interpretations.
Slatkin's basic tempos are a bit brighter than typical and the performance is much lighter on its feet than the version he recorded with the St. Louis Symphony in the mid '70s, which is almost lugubrious by comparison. But here, thanks to Slatkin's judicious use of rubato and secure command of structure, the piece unfurls its long-breathed lines with momentum and honest emotion shorn of wallowing sentiment.
The opening pages create a concentrated mood of dark nostalgia that flowers into a wider sweep of color, muscularity and warmth. The big tune in the adagio glows, and principal clarinetist Ted Oien contributes a sumptuous solo. The finale bursts forth in an exciting blaze of brass, reeds, horns and richly textured strings -- the ensemble's radiance is well-captured in the resonant acoustics of Orchestra Hall.
Slatkin has a long history with this symphony. In addition to his own previous recording, his great-uncle, Modeste Altschuler, conducted the American premiere in 1909 with the Russian Symphony of New York. It also was the piece Slatkin was conducting in November when he suffered his heart attack in the Netherlands. Hopefully this recording, which documents how quickly he has bonded with the DSO, will create better karma going forward... -- Detroit Free Press, Mark Stryker, January 24, 2010
Detroit may have been down and nearly out as a manufacturing center in 2009, but you would never know it from the sound of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under its new music director, Leonard Slatkin. For Slatkin - who built his reputation in St. Louis, then became conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., before moving to Detroit - the orchestra sounds warm, committed and well balanced, with especially strong strings. The sound of its September 2009 live recording of Rachmaninoff emphasizes warmth as well: Orchestra Hall in Detroit has long had excellent acoustics, and they are well captured here. But it is hard to be completely enthusiastic about this new CD, partly because of the repertoire and partly because of the way Slatkin approaches it. This is a kind of "Rachmaninoff's greatest orchestral hits" CD; it is questionable how many of those a listener needs. Even more questionable is Slatkin's form of conductorial enthusiasm here.Rachmaninoff was the last of the unashamed Romantic composers (Rued Langgaard outlived him by nearly a decade and stayed true to the Romantic style, but often seemed to do so ruefully in his later works). Slatkin gives this music such an unashamedly Romantic interpretation that the works expand almost to the point of popping, like gigantic, beautiful but fragile soap bubbles. Vocalise,orchestrated by the composer after starting out as the final (wordless) song in a set of 14 songs, opens the CD and sets a tone of expressiveness to the point of swooning. Yes, Rachmaninoff's music invites this, but a conductor's challenge is to decide how to manage the expansiveness - lest it manage him. The latter is more or less what happens with Slatkin here. Symphony No. 2 certainly sprawls - especially the first movement - and Slatkin wallows in it, letting it grow and glow with such sumptuousness that it crosses the line between the portentous and the pretentious. Again, Rachmaninoff's music invites this, but a conductor who accepts the invitation as enthusiastically as Slatkin does here ends up with more than a touch of bloat. So thoroughly is Slatkin steeped in Rachmaninoff's post-Romantic ultra-Romanticism that he makes some speedy sections sound almost perfunctory - the opening of the scherzo, for example - because he is in a hurry to dwell on the contrasting slow and indulgent parts of the music. This is not to say that Slatkin's tempos are slow - the start of the finale, for example, is quick and ebullient - but there is a feeling here of getting most of the fast-paced material out of the way in order to allow more time for the broad themes and swooning that pervade Rachmaninoff's music. This is a CD for listeners who admire Rachmaninoff's many influences on movie scores and pop-music love songs, not one for listeners seeking some of the balance and proportion that are present in Rachmaninoff's music - although not always obviously. -- The Infodad Team, January 28, 2010
It is quite a feather in Naxos's cap to have so distinguished a conductor as Leonard Slatkin, now Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, recording for them. Slatkin had long been associated with RCA, EMI, and other labels, where he made over 100 fine recordings. Naxos acknowledges the present disc, one of several Slatkin has made for them over the past few years, by affording the jewel box its own slipcover, always a sign of a prestige product.
This time out, Maestro Slatkin tackles that twentieth-century holdout of old-fashioned Romanticism and mainstay of the basic repertoire, Rachmaninov's Second Symphony (1908). Above all, the Symphony demands fervor and passion, which, for better or for worse, Slatkin serves up only in brief moments of enthusiasm. Mostly, the conductor gives us a secure run-through, emphasizing the work's more lyrical elements rather than its splashier dramatics.
So the brooding first movement is just that: more meditative, thoughtful, and subdued than electrifying. Slatkin begins to hit his stride in the quicker second-movement Scherzo, though, where the temperature rises significantly from the preceding segment. Following that, the Adagio comes across with an abundance of wistful longing, and it's here that Slatkin is at his absolute best. Although his tempo is actually a touch fast for my taste, he imbues the music with an appropriate melancholy.
In the Finale, marked Allegro Vivace, Rachmaninov seemed determined to out-Tchaikovsky Tchaikovsky with a huge, theatrical production. Slatkin gives it his best shot, while maintaining some degree of decorum until the very end, where he plainly gives in to the composer's demand for plenty of juice.
I would count Slatkin's interpretation as very good, without quite reaching the intensity of, say, a Previn (EMI), a Jansons (EMI), or a Rozhdestvensky (Regis). As a fill-up, we find Rachmaninov's Vocalise, also well rendered.
Naxos recorded the performances in Detroit's Orchestra Hall during live sessions in September of 2009, where they obtained a dynamic if not entirely transparent result. OK, I admit I'm still spoiled by all those old Mercury recordings of the Detroit Symphony from the Fifties, so wonderfully remastered some years ago on CD and SACD. By comparison, the Naxos disc sounds firm and clear but a little tame, despite a couple of solid bass whacks. -- Classical Candor, John J. Puccio, February 7, 2010
It's always to pleasure to hear Rachmaninov's Second Symphony. Especially in the uncut original version that has come to be the norm once again in our symphony halls and on recordings. This longlimbed work was premiered under the composer's baton in St. Petersburg in 1908 and first heard in America in January 1909. When Rachmaninov emigrated from Russia to the west following the Revolution, he found the pace of life had changed dramatically since before the war. Audiences were less willing to sit patiently through a mammoth work that lasted almost an hour, and the composer eventually agreed to a number of cuts that tightened its structure and reduced the playing time to little more than forty minutes. It was that version that held sway in concert for a number of decades. accents on the fingerboard. In the nonclassical way it spins out its charming, discretely exotic ideas, this work is pure essence of Debussy. The Ravel Sonata (192327) is famous, first and foremost, for the influence of the new American popular music of his day in the central movement, appropriately entitled Blues. It is bluesy, too, from the very opening with its marked banjolike accents to the languid swelling tones of the melody with slides marked in by the composer in the slow movement. Ravel seems intent on recreating the violin as a jazz instrument (which it was not at the time). Lin and Sioles obviously have a great time with its perpetual motion finale. The Poulenc Sonata (1943, revised 1949) is, as we might guess from our experience of this composer, more problematical than its predecessors, especially in terms of the great mood swings that it encompasses (a musician friend of mine characterizes Poulenc as "The Manic Depressive," a point I must admit I never got until I heard this work for the first time when reviewing the present recording). The violence of its opening and the interruptions in its main melody reflect the fact that Poulenc wrote it in time of war, while the discretion with which he expresses his anger in the darkly melancholy Intermezzo, the emotional center of the work, may reflect the fact that he was wary of the censors in Vichy France. Poulenc dedicated the work to the memory of the martyred Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and he prefaced the Intermezzo with a wellknown quotation from Lorca, "The guitar makes dreams cry." The finale, marked Presto tragico, challenges Lin and Sioles to the height of their artistry in the violence of its opening and the unstable way in which the shifting 5/4, 6/4 and 7/4 metres cut against the lyricism of the theme introduced by the piano. The movement seems to spin out of control, becoming thicker, louder and more dissonant, before the tempo slows to half the speed and the mood becomes more depressed towards the end. Though these artists respond admirably to the challenges of balance and characterization that the work poses, I can understand why it is not performed more often. -- Audio Video Club of Atlanta, Phil, February 2010
Leonard Slatkin has a naïve passion for Rachmaninov, tempered by analytical restraint. Recorded live in Detroit, his structure in the second symphony is as solid as a T-model chassis and the adagio is never allowed to sink into mush. The soloists - concertmaster Emanuelle Boisvert and clarinet Theodore Oien - are world class. -- Dilettante, Norman Lebrecht, February 10, 2010
Leonard Slatkin was known in his 12 years at the National Symphony Orchestra for championing less-played 20th-century American music. But on his first EDITED TO ADD: Naxos recording as music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, he conducts works so tried-and-true that they could easily become tiresome. They don't, thanks to the skill of the Detroit musicians, but these are still performances that have more visceral appeal than staying power.
The quality of the string and brass playing in Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 is the CD's strongest point. The orchestra stays together at all speeds and in all rhythms: In this live recording, there is none of the under-rehearsal that often marred Slatkin's NSO performances. The Detroit Symphony's polished sound is not ideal for Russian romanticism, but its evenness is attractive, especially at Slatkin's often-speedy tempos. Some fast sections seem almost perfunctory, as it Slatkin wants to get through them to wallow in the symphony's broadly expansive themes. This is most noticeable in the scherzo, whose opening is so heady as to sound breathless. But it is also apparent in the sprawling first movement, whose beginning is more menacing than melancholy and whose second theme is slowed to the point of ponderousness. (And Slatkin omits the first-movement exposition repeat.)
Yet this reading as a whole has considerable dramatic power, with an effective first-movement climax and some beautiful clarinet playing in the slow movement. Its perfunctory conclusion, though, is a disappointment, as if the finale builds to nothing.
The CD also includes Rachmaninoff's famous Vocalise, which is played with beauty but a slight overdose of swooning expressiveness. -- The Washington Post, Mark J. Estren, March 24, 2010
Performance: 5 stars; Sound: 5 stars Rachmaninov's First Symphony, for any number of reasons, received one of the most venomous, disdainful premieres in music history. Everything from the score itself to unprepared musicians to a supposedly drunken conductor (Glazunov) has been blamed for its icy reception. No matter the cause, the result was a devastated composer who was not to return to the form for more then a decade, and only then after the assistance of a hypnotherapist. The Second Symphony, heard here on this Naxos disc, was a complete rebirth for Rachmaninov and was received with great acclaim. Its American premiere was conducted by Modeste Altschuler, the great uncle of conductor Leonard Slatkin. How appropriate it is, then, that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra should celebrate its own new beginnings with Slatkin, their new (as of the 2008-2009 season) principal conductor. The revitalized sound that Slatkin draws from the DSO is simply superb, reaffirming its position as one of the country's preeminent orchestras. The strings produce a rich velvety texture with powerful, penetrating violins all the way down to marvelously articulated, robust basses. The rest of the orchestra sounds just as good, in particular the vigorous brass section. Slatkin's interpretation of this great symphony is sweeping in its scope while obviously paying meticulous attention to every detail and nuance written in the score. From the breathtakingly romantic Third Movement to the fiery, agitated Scherzo, the DSO and Slatkin offer listeners a first-rate recording and a deeply satisfying musical experience. -- AllMusic, Mike D. Brownell, February 2010
Slatkin took over as Music Director for the Detroit Symphony Orchesta in 2008, and this is their first recording together. Slatkin's earlier recordings of Rachmaninoff's music with the St Louis Symphony on the Vox label are still WSCL favorites; this new one on Naxos with a different orchestra shows he's still got the right touch. -- The WSCL Blog, Bill, January 22, 2010
Slatkin's performance here is simply remarkable all around. He is given virtuosic performances from the Detroit players. The phrase shaping and subtle rubato is also well-chosen. Tempos never drag and transitions into the many big moments of the score are handled so well that they never seem episodic (something which can plague many a Rachmaninov performance). And just when you think things cannot get any better, you are practically on your feet for the final 2 minutes of the fourth movement--yes, it is goose bumps musical time. This new Naxos release is probably one of the most thrilling performances of this work. The performance was recorded live which is only apparent at the very end when the audience explodes with appreciation. While I would not give up my other CDs used for comparison, this new release will certainly edge its way to the top. Let's hope for a long fruitful recording history with Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony! -- MaestroSteve on Xanga, February 14, 2010
St. Paul, Minn. -- Leonard Slatkin began his tenure as Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the 2008-2009 season and he loves it. "There's a joy of music-making that's very infectious. I'm more than happy every time I walk out on the stage to be with this orchestra because the musical attitude is so high and so wonderful!" Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra have just released their first recording together, featuring Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2 and the popular "Vocalise."
This new release was recorded live at Orchestra Hall, the home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Slatkin says the hall does impact the sonic quality of this orchestra, "Because of the hall and the nature of the players, it's a very lush, romantic, full-bodied sound. It's virtuoso where it needs to be, but I think it's characteristic with the rich sonority that one associated, perhaps, with the old Philadelphia Orchestra. I'm not saying we're the same as that orchestra, but that would be the kind of model which I can see as a fair comparison." That full, lavish quality rises up as the climax builds during the first movement of the symphony.
Leonard Slatkin has quite a history with Rachmaninov's Second Symphony. "I've always felt close to it, for a very simple reason. The American premiere of it was given by my grandfather's brother as conductor of the Russian Symphony Orchestra in 1907. So there's been a relationship with this piece in my family for quite some time now." The fact that Slatkin's great-uncle, Modest Altschuler, first conducted this work in America is one reason it's significant to the conductor. "Now it takes on another meaning," Slatkin reveals, "because this is the work I was conducting when I had a heart attack on November 1." Slatkin is taking better care of himself these days. "I'm taking more time for reflection and study. I'm even conducting a bit different because I wound up losing 20 pounds. This has caused my posture to change for the better, standing straighter, not hunching over so much. Not being pulled by the weight of gravity in the mid-section."
Slatkin first recorded Rachmaninov's three symphonies with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the 1980's. He has since conducted the Second so many times he's lost count, yet this time things are different. "I think what's changed is there's a more concentrated view of the architectural structure of the work. So I don't take quite as much time going between one phrase and the next. I tend to move along now. I think it's a much quicker performance, certainly much faster than my other recording." In this performance Slatkin is more concerned about making all those long transitions more seamless. "In the slow movement," he explains, "at the very beginning you have a beautiful moment with the clarinet. And the earlier version is quite slow with probably more ritards more often than I would like. The newer version is a bit quicker and more seamless, not slowing down as often." Midway into the second movement, marked Allegro molto, Slatkin is much less reserved than in the past, too, throwing caution to the wind as he conducts the fugue at break-neck speed.
In concert, Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra usually offer Rachmaninov's popular "Vocalise," as an encore. For this recording, it serves as an introduction to the Second Symphony. "Both works are in the same key," Slatkin clarifies, "and for the purposes of this recording, we thought a more gentle opening before setting up the almost hour-long symphony was appropriate." The "Vocalise" is a song without words. Numerous arrangements of it exist. It was the composer himself who made this version for orchestra, which is absolutely lovely, especially in the hands of Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. This is where we once again hear the full-bodied sound for which this orchestra is fast becoming known. Leonard Slatkin comes from a long line of musicians. He says it was a choice of becoming a musician, or a baseball broadcaster. Music won out. Today he's cutting back his hectic schedule, yet still serves as Principal Guest Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Right now, his heart is in Detroit. Economic times are really tough there, but according to Slatkin, the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra always rise above that. "There's been a good atmosphere every week with this orchestra," he explains. "It's a phenomenal group of musicians. I love it here!" -- Classical Minnesota Public Radio, Julie Amacher, February 9, 2010
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