This would be an extraordinary set of the Rachmaninoff symphonies from a conductor in his 50s. From one barely into his 30s - 31 at present - it is nothing short of phenomenal.
I say that because, with few exceptions, Andrew Litton not only equals or surpasses the best of the current competition - people like Ormandy, Previn and Ashkenazy - but does so with a maturity and orchestral savvy that would do credit to a musician twice his age.Take the CD containing the First Symphony, after all these years still something of an underrated piece. (Following the first performance, Rachmaninoff himself tried to destroy it.) Litton may not generate the sheer excitement of Ashkenazy (London), in one of his finest Rachmaninoff recordings, or Ormandy (CBS), with its imposing orchestral sound and breathtaking swagger in the finale. But he is not far behind, at the same time managing to invest the music with a darkly lyrical quality that somehow expresses itself from within.
Witness the aching spaciousness of the first movement, its fugal development arcing almost against its will. Or the flashes of light amid the shadows of the second movement and the aromatically inward Adagio, like the rest notable for the conductor's natural shaping of phrases.
That same lyrical expansiveness registers to even better effect in the justly popular Second Symphony, which thanks to the inclusion of the first-movement exposition repeat - the first time I have encountered this on records - cracks the 60-minute barrier for a total timing of 63:10. In Previn's similarly expansive Telarc recording, likewise with the RPO, I felt that sometimes deprived the music of momentum. But not here, as Litton's skillful urging of climaxes and canny use of rubato maintain interest from first note to last.
The result is an unusually flexible reading in which one nonetheless senses an underlying strength. One thinks of the yielding treatment of the second subject of the Scherzo, which sounds as though it has been pulled from within, juxtaposed with a central section less obviously impassioned than Temirkanov's (EMI) but still pretty exciting. Ditto the radiantly exuberant finale.
No less impressive are the fillers on these discs. Indeed, I would rank this "Isle of the Dead" with any in the catalog, with the possible exception of Rachmaninoff's own and, should RCA see fit to restore it, Reiner's. Again, Litton seems to know just when to hold back and when to push on, from time to time allowing himself an occasional dramatic flourish.
On a slightly lower level is the CD containing the Symphony No. 3 and the "Symphonic Dances," an ideal pairing, representing as they do the last major orchestral essays of the composer's life. Particularly in the symphony one admires Litton's suppleness and knowing way with phrases - again a concern for the long line. What this reading does not always have is the impulse and edginess one associates with late Rachmaninoff. It does, however, capture the shadowy, mysterious quality that eludes so many other conductors. Nor are you likely to hear a more beautifully textured account of the slow movement, with its almost chamberlike scoring.
Likewise the highlighting of wind solos in the second of the "Symphonic Dances," a performance that could also use a little more incisiveness in places but is otherwise strong and graceful, with an almost cheerful bounce to the finale. Overall I still prefer Ashkenazy (in the absence of Kondrashin's, the most Russian-sounding recording), Johanos, Ormandy and, on a splendidly transferred Price-Less CD, Goossens. But that is where one must go for comparisons and, as indicated, in the other works even in that company Litton stands out.
I wonder what he'll be like at 40.