His Rachmaninov certainly "dances". In that, he is at least faithful to its title, if not to its spirit. Rythms are powerful, even trenchant (though I somewhat miss the primitivism of those driving horn marcatos in the opening dance); articulation, clean as a whistle, opens out the texture, animated woodwind lines repeatedly catch the light, string basses and contra-bassoon boldly lead with their two left feet. It's very much alive and, in the closing pages of the finale's danse macabre, indubitably exciting (although I still maintain that that final tam-tam crash, which is not marked laisser vibrer, is notated to register only a short, sharp shock of sound - the breath of the devil on the back of the neck - after the cut-off of the final chord).
But stylistically? If Rachmaninov had intended the saxophone's wistful second subject to appear quite this plain, this unknowing (pale isn't the word), why on earth would he have marked it molto espressivo? The rubatos generally lack reach (compare even a bar or two of Ormandy and the Philadelphia), portamento is too sparing and, where it is deployed, too dutiful. The enchanted waltz of the second movement should owe more to the imperial splendours of Tchaikovsky than to the well-practised refinements of the Viennese parlour (could Gardiner not have teased us more with the return, replete with its delectable bassoon counterpoint?).
With Taras Bulba, Gardiner again exhibits a keen ear for the niceties - and quirks - of the scoring. That extraordinary opening, for instance, starting as it does mid-sentence, a cor anglais in mourning, an organ dirge half-heard from somewhere deep in the subconscious, oboe and lachrymose double-bass (how's that for unlikely) sharing the heartache. But again, the tone is generally a bit urbane, the second movement's galloping ostinati and strident E-flat clarinet not rude, not uncouth enough (why, Mackerras, in his Decca version, even persuaded the Vienna Philharmonic to dirty up their act).
Perhaps, then, it's partly the character, or lack of character, in the playing of the NDR Symphony Orchestra - sturdy, efficient, but hardly charismatic. Personality, temperament, broad strokes - that's what this music needs - both in terms of direction and of execution. And for all the musical quality of Gardiner's work here (and DG's ripe, immediate sound presentation), I don't feel it. Yet.
Most conductors - or at least most modern conductors - have stressed the dance in Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances. Judging by this recording, Gardiner is more inclined to the symphonic aspect. If so, the point is worth making: colourful, richly atmospheric though these three movements are, they can be handled too rhapsodically, too loosely.
Evidence suggests that Rachmaninov saw the finale as an autobiographical life-and-death struggle - at least in the closing stages. Gardiner brings that out, and the sternly Nordic character he brings to the waltz and the opening troika ride are plausible too. Nostalgic, sweetly lingering it isn't - but at the very least it makes an interesting counter to the received idea of Rachmaninov as a kind of Russian Delius.
I wish I could be as positive about Gardiner's Taras Bulba. In many ways it's the kind of performance Toscanini might have given: lean, sinewy and somewhat unyielding. The rhythms are sharply articulated, but often a touch metronomic. Gardiner works hard to build climaxes, but the music rarely opens out expressively, and I really missed the bloom of the Czech Philharmonic strings, especially as captured in Karel Ancerl's venerable recording (on Supraphon) - aged Eastern European sound quality, but who cares?
Still, those who think of Rachmaninov as a flabby romantic, lacking intellectual fibre and rhythmic muscle, should hear Gardiner's Symphonic Dances. It's a performance with a message.