Questions over aesthetic merit never quite go away with Rachmaninov. For a long time, his music was accused of vulgarity and held in low repute, and while such views might be strange to us today, doubts do continue to hover over his symphonies. The Third hardly ever gets a look in.

There shouldn’t be a problem. The shortest of the three, Rachmaninov composed it at the pinnacle of his powers: indeed he was to compose only one more major work, the Symphonic Dances, four years later. And despite reportedly receiving a flattering premiere by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Third Symphony wasn’t much liked by anyone – except the composer himself, who responded: “Personally, I am firmly convinced that this is a good work.”

Well, here was its chance to live up to his verdict. As we have seen in this ASO series of all the symphonies, Andrew Litton has proven to be Rachmaninov’s firmest champion, and the way he projects these works has become plainly evident: by injecting plenty of energy, pumping up drama at every opportunity, and never letting things sag.

It happened all over again with Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44. Starting with four bars of muted melody in the clarinets, and muted horns and cellos which serve as its motto, the symphony took off like an action movie. Brash and noisy, it had all the cinematic power of Ben-Hur. Which comes, of course, as no surprise: generations of film composers from Max Steiner to Joe Hisaishi have been indebted to Rachmaninov.

Conductor Andrew Litton has proven to be Rachmaninov’s firmest champion. Photo: Saige Prime

Litton did not disguise the connection. And he went another interpretative step, by adding a ton of rubato. After this fanfare the score suddenly subsides to make way for a slowly welling melody in the cellos. It is not a sin to do this in Rachmaninov: he actually indicates “tempo rubato” at this point, and instructs the cellos to sustain one note mid-phrase. Things can sound lumpy if executed too literally here, but Litton instead applied big elastic shapes over the whole phrase that at once felt flowing and natural.

Here was the Third as one supposed it should sound: effervescent and free of any roadblocks that so easily halt its numerous twists and turns. The ASO were dazzling, just as they have been all through this series, responding enthusiastically to Litton’s direction. With wide arm gestures that were more about imparting a flowing energy than rigidity of timing, he allowed them to feel free about giving of themselves. The dividends were spirit and precision in equal measure.

Myriad things happen in the Third Symphony. Unexpected solos bob up in places, and masses of iridescent detail take over its three movements. One special moment occurs in the second movement when the strings combine in delicate massed trills: these were wonderfully done.

But if the Third Symphony comes as a disappointment after the Second, it is perhaps because it doesn’t conform to a symphony in any traditional sense. Rachmaninov seems to be rebelling against the past. Instead, one can think of it as a concerto for orchestra, seven years ahead of Bartók’s celebrated work of that name.

This series did not include The Isle of the Dead or Symphonic Dances, which would have been ideal partnering works. However, two works by American composers from around the same time served as a reminder of Rachmaninov’s American connections.

Copland achieved something in Appalachian Spring: Suite that the great Russian composer never quite managed, which was to simplify his language right down to a bare purity. This work is not self-consciously “modern” any more than the Third Symphony, but its language makes it more immediately appealing.

One sensed a degree of tiredness had set in by this third concert, at least in the first half. The open expanse and sense of stillness Copland creates almost materialised, but not quite. Still, this was glorious music to hear.

Barber’s Violin Concerto is another pivotal American work that stood in defiance of the modernist movement, but again in a different way to Rachmaninov. Violinist Emily Sun, the ASO’s artist in association, communicated its solo part with directness and melodic conviction – qualities it absolutely needs. Others give it a more singing line, but Sun’s playing was admirably full of tone.

On the back of this highly successful series, one hopes the ASO will do more such explorations – and invite Litton back again.

Graham Strahle’s review of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s first two concerts in the Rachmaninov Symphonies series can be read here.

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