Rachmaninoff: Symphony No.1, The Isle of the Dead Op.29, Youth Symphony

BBC Philharmonic (Chandos CHAN10475)

4 July 2008 3.5 stars

Rachmaninoff Symphony No.1 etc.Gianandra Noseda is bringing the BBC Philharmonic to this year's Proms with Rachmaninoff's First Symphony (coupled, intriguingly, with Puccini's Il Tabarro with a cast that includes Barbara Fritolli) and from the evidence of this release from Chandos, the same combination of orchestra and conductor are thoroughly at home in the composer's music.

The symphony is preceded by the tone poem, The isle of the dead, and by way of relief from so much darkness and morbidity – both tone poem and symphony are shot through with the Dies irae – we have the composer's first foray into the symphonic world, the single movement Youth Symphony from 1891. All captured in detailed, natural sound, the BBC Philharmonic plays wonderfully throughout and, under Noseda's command, produce a wide array of shades and colours in these highly atmospheric works.

The performance of The isle of the dead struck me a particularly fine, with Noseda building its imposing structure with patience and a sure touch. The dark and mysterious opening is brilliantly evoked and the first climax, just shy of ten minutes in, is shattering. The strings in the more lyrical second section play beautifully, treated to luminous support from the brass. The feeling exhaustion towards the end as the Dies irae becomes more ubiquitous is as inevitable and real as I've heard it.

In some ways, what makes this performance of the later tone poem so convincing gives us a clue as to why the symphony doesn't come across quite so successfully. There's the same care and attention to detail and the same excellent playing from the orchestra – the woodwind here, particularly the clarinet, are especially good – but Noseda's reading manages far better to produce feelings of resignation than exultation. For that reason, in the first movement, the second subject is shaped with supreme musicality and played with rich tone by the strings but in the angry fugato passages I missed the final ounce of bite, despite clean projection of the lines. Similarly, the Larghetto third movement receives a hugely persuasive reading and the control of dynamics, with an almost imperceptible final chord, is to be admired. However, I still find it impossible not to wish the young Rachmaninoff had been able to come up with a melody here even half as memorable of the Second Symphony's slow movement. After the hushed conclusion of this movement, though, the fanfares and marches of the finale are despatched with élan but I missed some of the Russian fire that others bring to it.

This recording is one of more and more being supported by the Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation (Noseda's earlier Francesca da Rimini on Chandos as well as Denis Matsuev's Unknown Rachmaninoff on RCA also having enjoyed the foundation's support) so it's appropriate that it include a lesser-known, early work. The single ten-minute movement known as 'Youth Symphony' certainly fits the bill and, although unashamedly Tchaikovskian, is no less enjoyable for that. Apart from anything else, it shows quite how astonishingly gifted the young Rachmaninoff was, showing the first glimpses of the unerring feel for melody and – not acknowledged as readily – orchestration that stood by him through his career. Although the performance here is enjoyable, though, it struck me as a little too smooth round the edges. However, the wind playing of the BBC Philharmonic in this movement, most obviously influenced by the first movement of Tchaikovsky with its own extensive wind solos, is exemplary.

In sum, this is a fine disc. The symphony and The Isle of the Dead undoubtedly plumb the depths of some of Rachmaninoff at his darkest, even if the performance of the earlier work doesn't quite achieve the passion and fire of some other recordings.

By Hugo Shirley