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My introduction to Rachmaninov’ s Second Symphony was a welcome distraction from Camus, Jane Austen and Virgil studies for my HSC. I loved it from the start. My introduction to Tadaaki Otaka’s first splendid version, with the BBC Welsh National Orchestra, came many years later and I was equally impressed. He continues to acquit himself as a masterful and instinctive Rachmaninov interpreter in a rendition which wins hands down, in both performance and recording, against Ashkenazy’s tepid, enervated reading with the Sydney Symphony, itself a mere epigone of that conductor’s radiant Concertgebouw version.
The secret in this potentially sprawling work is to gauge the pulse of the opening movement, making the ebb and flow convincing and grading the climaxes – in other words, keeping your powder dry. No other symphony I know radiates such a powerfully Russian sense of yearning amid the glamorous scoring, enriched by Otaka’s haunting, affectionate (without appearing to milk every bar of emotion) and ultimately stirring insights. Tempi are well judged – I particularly responded to the precision in the Prokofiev-like spikiness of the Scherzo and the tenuto used to great effect just before the final climax.
A colleague whom I knew had been in the audience of this concert enthuses about the way, in the brass peroration of the finale, the horns had lifted their instruments in unison, as electrifying as the coup de théâtre in Mahler’s First, when they all stand. Apart from the occasional coarseness in the brass (understandable in a live performance in which the orchestra had already accompanied Garrick Ohlsson in the Third Piano Concerto), I have no hesitation in recommending this CD.