New Classical Tracks: Slatkin's Rachmaninov

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
February 9, 2010

St. Paul, Minn. — Leonard Slatkin began his tenure as Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the 2008-2009 season and he loves it. "There's a joy of music-making that's very infectious. I'm more than happy every time I walk out on the stage to be with this orchestra because the musical attitude is so high and so wonderful!" Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra have just released their first recording together, featuring Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2 and the popular "Vocalise."

This new release was recorded live at Orchestra Hall, the home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Slatkin says the hall does impact the sonic quality of this orchestra, "Because of the hall and the nature of the players, it's a very lush, romantic, full-bodied sound. It's virtuoso where it needs to be, but I think it's characteristic with the rich sonority that one associated, perhaps, with the old Philadelphia Orchestra. I'm not saying we're the same as that orchestra, but that would be the kind of model which I can see as a fair comparison." That full, lavish quality rises up as the climax builds during the first movement of the symphony.

Leonard Slatkin has quite a history with Rachmaninov's Second Symphony. "I've always felt close to it, for a very simple reason. The American premiere of it was given by my grandfather's brother as conductor of the Russian Symphony Orchestra in 1907. So there's been a relationship with this piece in my family for quite some time now." The fact that Slatkin's great-uncle, Modest Altschuler, first conducted this work in America is one reason it's significant to the conductor. "Now it takes on another meaning," Slatkin reveals, "because this is the work I was conducting when I had a heart attack on November 1." Slatkin is taking better care of himself these days. "I'm taking more time for reflection and study. I'm even conducting a bit different because I wound up losing 20 pounds. This has caused my posture to change for the better, standing straighter, not hunching over so much. Not being pulled by the weight of gravity in the mid-section."

Slatkin first recorded Rachmaninov's three symphonies with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the 1980's. He has since conducted the Second so many times he's lost count, yet this time things are different. "I think what's changed is there's a more concentrated view of the architectural structure of the work. So I don't take quite as much time going between one phrase and the next. I tend to move along now. I think it's a much quicker performance, certainly much faster than my other recording." In this performance Slatkin is more concerned about making all those long transitions more seamless. "In the slow movement," he explains, "at the very beginning you have a beautiful moment with the clarinet. And the earlier version is quite slow with probably more ritards more often than I would like. The newer version is a bit quicker and more seamless, not slowing down as often." Midway into the second movement, marked Allegro molto, Slatkin is much less reserved than in the past, too, throwing caution to the wind as he conducts the fugue at break-neck speed.

In concert, Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra usually offer Rachmaninov's popular "Vocalise," as an encore. For this recording, it serves as an introduction to the Second Symphony. "Both works are in the same key," Slatkin clarifies, "and for the purposes of this recording, we thought a more gentle opening before setting up the almost hour-long symphony was appropriate." The "Vocalise" is a song without words. Numerous arrangements of it exist. It was the composer himself who made this version for orchestra, which is absolutely lovely, especially in the hands of Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. This is where we once again hear the full-bodied sound for which this orchestra is fast becoming known.

Leonard Slatkin comes from a long line of musicians. He says it was a choice of becoming a musician, or a baseball broadcaster. Music won out. Today he's cutting back his hectic schedule, yet still serves as Principal Guest Conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Right now, his heart is in Detroit. Economic times are really tough there, but according to Slatkin, the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra always rise above that. "There's been a good atmosphere every week with this orchestra," he explains. "It's a phenomenal group of musicians. I love it here!"

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