CLASSICAL MUSIC / Double Play: Earning the right to the repeat: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson check the form for one of the great Russian symphonies

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RACHMANINOV: Symphony No 2 - Kirov Orchestra, St Petersburg / Gergiev (Philips 438 864-2); Russian National Orchestra / Pletnev (DG 439 888-2); St Petersburg Philharmonic / Jansons (EMI CDC 5 55140-2)

ATTENTION spans, we're told, are getting shorter. And yet the old grumble about the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler and Rachmaninov 2 - that they're too long for normal human endurance - is hardly heard at all these days. Nobody makes the once-conventional cuts in the Rachmaninov any more (thank God]), and Gergiev's new version even follows the first-movement repeat, bringing the total experience up to just short of 60 minutes.

But in music, longueurs have little to do with clock time. I wouldn't say the repeat adds to or subtracts anything from the larger structure. It's more like an encore of the first and second themes, and, like an encore, it has to be earned. I'd say Gergiev does earn it. In terms of recorded sound, his is the least immediately appealing of the three versions - although its slight rawness is not entirely inappropriate. This isn't soft-focus Rachmaninov, as Jansons' sometimes is. There's an edge to the Kirov playing, but with it goes strong, ardent phrasing, visceral warmth and a strong emotional charge - I've no trouble yielding to that.

No question who gets the best playing. The Russian National Orchestra make a gorgeous sound, and their alert responsiveness to the niceties of Pletnev's direction is always impressive. But I listened to Pletnev's version with growing irritation. Why does he push the music forward so often? It isn't simply a question of speed, more that he sounds impatient to get on to the next high point. Phrasing is very shapely - painstakingly so - but it's as if he were trying to prove that he's not in a hurry, that he's really involved. To me, the result is, expressively speaking, more manner than matter.

With Jansons it's almost the reverse. There's often a high level of tension in what he does, but something about the control bothers me. Sometimes he whips up emotion by stretching out a rubato or pushing his foot down on the accelerator. Sometimes I feel he reins in a phrase just when it's about to bloom. Like Jansons, Gergiev pulls the tempo about quite a bit in the first movement's sighing allegro theme, but Gergiev's version feels natural where Jansons sounds self-conscious. It's a little surprising, too, to find the St Petersburg Philharmonic ensemble less than ideally taut, and to note one or two unlovely solos - there's a distinctly scrawny violin at the start of the first movement development.

Jansons is at his brilliant best in the finale - the movement where I find Gergiev a little heavy, his colours matt to Jansons' gloss. But at least his finale feels like the culmination of a genuine symphonic experience, and after the warm radiance of his Adagio I could forgive him a lot more. Of these three new contenders, it's the Gergiev that's certain of a niche in my collection. SJ

THE RUSSIANS are coming. But the American has already been and conquered. It was Andre Previn who single-handedly brought this marvellous symphony to a wider public, and for my money his 1973 EMI recording with the LSO - dark, rhapsodic, epic in stance and manner - still leads the field.

Of the three newcomers, Gergiev comes closest to it in terms of naturalness of expression. He's right inside the piece, breathing with it, shaping with foresight through rubatos that sound integral to the line. No short- term thrills, no cheap sensations, but a compelling sense of direction and development. Fine playing, too: the first clarinet is a poet to rival even Jack Brymer for Previn. But there's a snag: the ungrateful sound of the Maryinsky Theatre, which so undermines Gergiev's excellent work on record. It's airless, opaque, tubby. I want to hear those refulgent horn counterpoints, not some woolly impression of them.

Jansons, with the 'other' St Petersburg orchestra, enjoys an acoustic at once more compatible with the Rachmaninov sound. After Gergiev, it's like throwing open the windows on the piece. But here's a conductor who likes to make his presence felt. In the shaping of the lovely first subject, the phrasing borders on the self-conscious. But Jansons, so often tame on record, really turns on the heat, playing up a storm in the dramatic surge of the first movement development, coming on as more traditionally 'Russian' than I've heard him in ages. It's theatrical, it's sporadically very exciting, but it doesn't add up as Gergiev's reading does.

For me, neither does Pletnev's. His account is fresh and interesting - the best played, the best recorded of the bunch - but way too objective for my taste. The surfaces are beautiful, the textural insights many, the big tunes are elegantly turned, their overt emotionalism kept covert. So much so that Pletnev's dutiful observation of the violin slides in the Scherzo's gorgeous second subject sounds almost out of character. It's the kind of music-making that sounds impassioned but doesn't feel it. Back to Previn. ES

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