Leonard Slatkin’s Detroit survey of Rachmaninov’s three Symphonies is a must for the library, the three discs (2009-12) now happily boxed for a revealing immersive experience. It’s more than the Symphonies, for there is also a brooding Isle of the Dead, that is evocative and powerfully emotional, structurally wholesome and wonderfully detailed, and with painterly variances of timbre (apt given it was Böcklin’s artistry that inspired the music). Symphonic Dances, the composer’s swansong, comes in a reading that reminds of Eugene Ormandy’s marvellous Philadelphia recording (1960), the work’s first performers (January 3, 1941) and dedicatees, Slatkin balancing to a nicety the score’s titular aspirations (although it’s Symphony Four in all but name), soulful and vibrant in equal measure, flexibly shapely and, in the final measures, when the music edges towards the abyss (Rachmaninov’s trademark use of the ‘Dies irae’ in desperate cry), there’s a thrilling charge to the fiery coda, the gong stroke left in suspense, chillingly, which Ormandy cuts-off abruptly; both ways are valid. By contrast, the Vocalise (orchestrated from the voiced Opus 34/14) is sweetly lyrical and consoling, spaciously affectionate.

The Symphonies are splendidly brought off, a darkly and fiercely impassioned First, intakes of breath confirming Slatkin’s involvement, the orchestra digging in, contrasted with an agilely woven second movement and an intimately languorous third. The Finale is rousing, festivities abound, Cossacks dance, but fate has other ideas – graphically realised in Detroit. The ubiquitous S2 is gripping throughout, and it should be noted that Slatkin’s St Louis version (analogue, released 1979) is newly available via Naxos (now that it has the Vox catalogue) in a superb remastering fully justifying the soubriquet of “Audiophile Edition”. (Will Slatkin’s complete St Louis Rachmaninov follow?) For S2, in Detroit Slatkin knocked a few minutes off the St Louis timing and thought better about adding timpani to the very end of the first movement. I wouldn’t want to be without either, however, the earlier version (also with Vocalise, more flowing) sounding terrific, a fine tribute to Marc Aubort & Joanna Nickrenz (of Elite Recordings fame), https://www.naxos.com/CatalogueDetail/?id=VOX-NX-3013CD. But then the Detroit reproduction is also first-class, vivid and tangible. As for S3 – Stokowski-premiered, composer-recorded – it’s my Desert Island Rachmaninov. Ormandy knew his way through it, so too Previn (two LSO recordings); similarly Slatkin, who in the company of the DSO, relishes the music’s power, passion, nostalgia, mercurialness, the revealing of the composer’s emotional circumstances, and the fantastic Technicolor orchestration. For the record, Slatkin observes the first-movement repeat (Rachmaninov didn’t, nor Ormandy) if not in S2 (neither rendition), but such information, like timings, can prove inconsequential. Slatkin is always persuasive. Naxos 8.503278 (3 CDs).

Sergei Rachmaninov – born 150 years ago on this date; he died on March 28, 1943.

27. Wielkanocny Festiwal Ludwiga van Beethovena|27th Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival – Leonard Slatkin conducts the Missa solemnis at the National Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw. Live relay on Polskie Radio Program II (PR2/Dwójka).