It’s hard to believe that up until about 30 years ago Rachmaninov’s orchestral scores were largely ignored or scorned by the critics and not popular with the public. Only the ubiquitous Second Piano Concerto and, to a certain extent, the ambitious Third were established in the repertoire. The symphonies were very rare beasts in the concert hall and it was only the advocacy of conductors like André Previn, whose recordings from the 1970s with the LSO still dominate the field, that recognition of the quality of these works, particularly the Second Symphony, was achieved. However the Third Symphony from 1935-36 has never found a secure place in the repertoire, so it was good to find this impressive work given an outing as the last work in London Philharmonic Orchestra's Rachmaninoff: Inside Out season.

Vladimir Jurowski © Roman Gontcharov
Vladimir Jurowski
© Roman Gontcharov

Vladimir Jurowski has a fine pedigree for performing Rachmaninov, with both his father and his grandfather having musical connections to the composer. However in this symphony I was not quite convinced by his interpretation. Compared with the epic nature of the Second, the tone of the later work is much more ambivalent. Written at a time when his musical idiom was beginning to sound outmoded, Rachmaninov was trying to expand his harmonic language and formal approach. What's memorable about the work is not its trademark sweeping melodies – of which there are several – but the tense central passages in each movement, which have a choppy anger that is rarely found elsewhere in his output.

The problem with Jurowski’s approach was that, by setting a slow tempo in the first movement, he placed the emphasis on the beautiful string melody, and there wasn’t enough punch in the troubled central section. The result was that the whole edifice fell flat at its quiet close. The central movement with its beautiful Adagio surrounding a scherzo-like passage was more successful, with wonderful woodwind playing in dialogue with rich balanced string tone. Nevertheless it would have benefited from a tougher approach to the climaxes in the fast music.

The finale alternates a positive rondo theme with a diverse variety of passages which can seem somewhat disconnected and terse. The same lack of contrast robbed the movement of a certain impetuosity and irascibility with Jurowski again lingering on the broad string melody. The final bars with their concise throwaway full orchestral cadence didn't make the impact they were surely meant to, leaving the ending feeling underpowered. The Third is a hard symphony to bring off by reason of its complex tone, which is also the thing that makes it interesting.

No such complexities were to be found in the two works that preceded it. These were rarities indeed and both orchestral arrangements by others. Piano Suites, Four movements are orchestrations of four early piano works by Yuri Butsko. The first two pieces were not as successful as the last two. The first Glory! uses a Russian theme made familiar by Mussorgsky in Boris Godunov. In this arrangement, it seemed to outstay its welcome and amounted to very little. However the final piece Easter, taken from his better known Suite for piano duet Fantaisie-tableaux, came across very strongly and rounded off the little collection well.

After this we were treated to the most affecting performance of the evening, an arrangement by the conductor's grandfather (also Vladimir Jurowski) of ten songs, sung by tenor Vsevolod Grivnov. The orchestral garb certainly brought out the directness and apparent simplicity of the songs without the distraction of Rachmaninov’s arresting piano style. Grivnov seemed to have the perfect voice for this repertoire with a delicacy of touch and strength of tone evident simultaneously. He also showed us a passionate nature in the most extrovert of the songs What Happiness, which rises to operatic heights. All credit to the Jurowskis junior and senior for never putting Grivnov under strain so that the beauty of his interpretations could shine through.