Rachmaninov's Second Symphony: Mariss Jansons Talks to Geoffey Norris about a Work He Has Recorded for the Third Time

By Jansons, Mariss | Gramophone, August 2016 | Go to article overview

Rachmaninov's Second Symphony: Mariss Jansons Talks to Geoffey Norris about a Work He Has Recorded for the Third Time


Jansons, Mariss, Gramophone


What's this I'm hearing? Are my ears deceiving me? Or is one of the two conductors I admire most in the entire world telling me that Rachmaninov's Second Symphony is 'a bit on the long side'? Cuts in Rachmaninov have always been a controversial issue. The Second Symphony and the Third Piano Concerto have in the past been the usual casualties, but these days it is rare to hear them done in truncated form, and I never thought to hear Mariss Jansons say that, on occasion, there might be some justification for the odd snip. In the only autograph manuscript of the Second Symphony known to have survived there is no indication at all that Rachmaninov contemplated cuts or foresaw the day when they might be needed. And Jansons's comment is even more of a surprise, given the fact that his new recording of the Second Symphony with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for the orchestra's own label, performed in full, is remarkable for the way in which the ideas in the music germinate, grow and generate such a powerful, organic life force.

Jansons does, however, qualify his remark about cuts. When making a recording of the symphony, he would conduct the score intact. Only in a concert performance might he shave some bars from the finale, because, he says, 'There are instances where Rachmaninov stays in one place and doesn't know how to move forward'. When we meet in Amsterdam, Jansons is midway through a run of The Queen of Spades at Dutch National Opera, so it's understandable that Tchaikovsky might be at the forefront of his mind, and he draws a parallel between Rachmaninov's reiteration of material in the Second Symphony's finale with the way Tchaikovsky so often (especially in the ballets, but also in the symphonies) repeats phrases verbatim. Up to 105 bars can be lost if these restatements are left out, and I've always found it thoroughly disorientating if the finale doesn't run its full course, but Jansons reasons that in a concert performance the constancy of an audience's concentration might sometimes be in jeopardy if the finale is played complete. 'Generally, though,' he says, 'you shouldn't do it.' I've certainly endured some tame and unflattering performances of the Second Symphony in my time, so it is clearly not a symphony that, so to speak, plays itself, but Jansons is a conductor who knows just how to maintain the finale's impulse and energy throughout its entire span. In any case, in this full-length recording, cuts are happily not a contentious issue.

One factor that might be, however, concerns the very last note of the first movement. Neither the existing manuscript nor the standard Boosey & Hawkes score gives any hint that a timpani thwack should bolster the cellos' and basses' unison bottom E in the final bar. Jansons is by no means alone in adding one here, though other conductors opt to leave the cellos and basses to their own devices, as the score indicates. 'If I could ask Rachmaninov,' says Jansons, 'he could tell me the reason,' but as far as Jansons is concerned that final sforzando E needs the timpani's support. 'If Rachmaninov had marked it pianissimo, I could have understood,' he says, 'but for me it's an energetic gesture and needs a strong beat.' There are many Second Symphony aficionados who get really hot under the collar about the timpani fortifying that bottom E, so I merely pass on this information without comment.

Jansons has previously recorded the Second Symphony with the Philharmonia (1986, Chandos) and the St Petersburg Philharmonic (1993, EMI), choosing, as on this new Royal Concertgebouw disc, not to do the repeat of the first movement exposition, believing that the proportions of exposition, development and recapitulation in a lengthy movement are preserved more satisfactorily without it. …

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