Rachmaninoff on record: some help in shopping for the best recordings

Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the legendary pianists of the century, a fine conductor, and a composer of more than passing interest. Recently his Second Symphony, once most visible in the record stores, has been gaining in favor in concert halls as well. The latest release of the Second Symphony is a performance conducted by one of the finest pianists of the day - Vladimir Ashkenazy - who of late has been spending a good deal of time on the podium rather than on the piano stool.

He leads the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam (London Digital LDR-71063) in a performance that strikes a magnificent balance between Russian effusion and musical proportion. Ashkenazy performs the work uncut. The orchestra plays superbly, with a burnished rich tone and telling conviction. Some of Ashkenazy's earlier performances as conductor have lacked strength and profile. This is a glorious exception.

Then, there is the 1978, EMI-Angel Records release of a performance of the Second with Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov and the Royal Philharmonic. The pressing had been singularly terrible, but the performance still rated as the best available. For those willing to spend the extra money, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs has released a stunning remastering of that release in its Original Master Recording series (MFSL1-521).

In this utterly transfixing performance, Temirkanov sustains tensions and passion right through to the exultant end. The sound on this particular remastering is breathtaking - every bit the rival to London's digital sound, though the original release predated digital technology.

Sound is also the thrilling hallmark of a cassette tape version from the In Sync Labs series of audiophile releases (C-4107). The performance is with the St. Louis Symphony led by Leonard Slatkin, first made available on record as part of a three-record Vox-Turnabout box set of the Rachmaninoff symphonies.

But this tape version - a completely remastered presentation - is a major step forward in this performance's sonic history. Indeed, it is almost unrecognizable, so rich are the sounds, so clean the balances, so smooth the output. Slatkin's Rachmaninoff is subdued, understated, and rather refreshingly free of excess. With this exceptional sound, the release rates high indeed.

The composer's Third Symphony, however, rarely shows up in concert halls. A Desmar release of a Stokowski performance of the work still takes top honors in a limited field. But now Lorin Maazel and the Berlin Philharmonic offer a dazzling account (Deutsche Grammophon Digital 2532 065), one that revels in textures, in sound for sound's sake, and the sheer beauty of Rachmaninoff's melodic inspiration. The filler, ''The Isle of the Dead'' receives a suitably gloomy performance, again rich in orchestral detail. The DG engineers have outdone themselves on this disc, which is as handsome sonically as it is interpretively.

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