RACHMANINOV The Second Piano Concerto: Recordings Survey Part 2 – INKPOT
PART 1 Rubinstein/Reiner (RCA) | Rösel/Sanderling (Berlin) | Rudy/Jansons (EMI)
PART 2 Anievas/Atzmon (EMI) | Richter/Wislocki (DG) | Ashkenazy/Previn (Decca) Thibaudet/Ashkenazy (Decca) | Entremont/Bernstein (Sony) | Cliburn/Reiner (RCA)
PART 3 (HISTORIC) Rubinstein/Golschmann (RCA) | Gieseking/Mengelberg (Music & Arts) |
Agustin Anievas’s approach is very similar to Ashkenazy’s with Kondrashin – steely playing tempered by melting lyricism, never heavy-handed or syrupy. Quite the contrary. While there is no doubt about Anievas’s technical prowess here, his passagework is unfailingly light in touch, almost quicksilver in rapid passages, with tones that seem to melt in mid-air in slower ones. When more power is needed, as in the more dramatic episodes of the finale, Anievas shows that he has plenty to spare, which makes those moments stand out all the more.
He is also not apt to taffy-pull passages for expressive intent, as Vásàry and Eresko often do (though Vásàry sounds natural when doing so, never mannered). While his approach falls into the lyrical side of the fence, Anievas is always tasteful and elegant while leaving the general proportions of Rachmaninov’s melodies basically intact. He plays the Adagio simply and gracefully, with a glowing tone, making the music sing so beguilingly that it will bring tears to your eyes. The scherzando in the middle of this movement practically leaps with joy, as does the closing passage.
If there is one flaw in this performance, it is in Moshe Atzmon’s conducting, which is capable but not really inspired. Here, Ashkenazy and Vásàry have a distinct advantage. Atzmon really falls flattest in the “Full Moon and Empty Arms” episodes of the finale, and allows the horns to overblow in the final climax – though not as mercilessly as Provatorov allowed for Eresko. Still, I would recommend this disc for Anievas’s incandescent solo work, which really should not be missed.
This is a performance that has to be taken strictly on its own terms. Sviastoslav Richter was an incredible pianist, but he could be as recalcitrant and controversial in his playing as he was often penetrating and illuminating – sometimes in the same performance. Like many of those performances, this disc is one that provokes strong reactions in people. Depending on your point of view, you will either love it or hate it.
Unlike most pianists, Richter emphasizes the verticality of the music, rather than the horizontal aspects. This can make Rachmaninov’s passagework seem like groupings of individual notes rather than linked sequences, and disconcert listeners approaching this performance in the same mindset as they would listen to other pianists.
However, this concentration on verticality places more emphasis on the step-wise motion of the main theme, highlighting the musical architecture of the concerto. It also links the opening movement with the Adagio as two sides of the same coin, since the Adagio‘s main theme is based on a similar step-wise progression, and accentuates a mystical or religious aspect to both movements, with the similarity in the musical contours of their themes to those in Russian Orthodox plainchant.
Another aspect of Richter’s playing that ties into this feeling of mysticism is his unique sense of timing. Time almost seems to stand still for Richter, and he is very likely to progress through a work in a cyclical manner, rather than a purely linear one. He does this especially in his performances of late Schubert sonatas (the snippet of the G major sonata, D. 894, in Richter, the Enigma is achingly slow when compared to other performances, but mesmerizing in its own right).
Though he does not stand time as fully on its head as in his Schubert, in the first two movements of the Rachmaninov, Richter achieves something very similar in overall effect – hypnotic in its ability to gently pull you into the music and focus your attention on it. Those who are looking for a more romantic or exciting interpretation will find Richter’s approach tedious. Others will find it cuts to the innermost core of this piece.
The third movement, on the other hand, takes off like a rocket, reaching supersonic velocity before leveling off for the lyrical second theme, as though somberness was exorcised in the Adagio and the music is now free to soar. And soar it does, though with devout exuberance rather than romantic passion. In the bridge passage between the first lyric episode and the reprise of the march (beginning at 3:16), Richter again emphasizes the chant-like aspect of the music, further framing this movement into the same general picture as the other two, and making what follows that much more of an affirmation of faith.
Evan Stephens writes:
One plus of the audio engineering is that while the piano may sound distanced and slim, whenever Ashkenazy plays a complex chord all the notes can be distinguished, which can often serve to help highlight the harmony. The repeated struggle between episodes of darkness and episodes of sweetness continue until the very final measures. (Excerpt from the full review)
The Second Concerto is by far the finest of Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s Rachmaninov recordings, with the extreme clarity of his fingerwork matched to an equally poetic sensibility. Though the tone he produces is not as weighty or rich in bass as what many pianists produce in this work, it is not a liability, and he summons more than enough passion for dramatic climaxes.
Thibaudet also has no qualms about luxuriating in this music – his lingering in the lyric section near the end of the first movement is positively lush – and is more delicate and affectionate in his approach than most pianists. He has a firm hand on the music’s pulse, knowing where he can ease the thread of tension enough to let the piece sing gently without ever letting go altogether.
There is also a slightly jazzy vocalization of the solo part in the Adagio, and again at the “Full Moom and Empty Arms” passages of the finale, with Thibaudet’s supple phrasing and contunual rubato reminding me of Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn at their warmest. Thibaudet’s approach works beautifully, however, keeping the music extremely spontaneous and alluring while not violating the spirit of Rachmaninov’s music one whit.
Vladimir Ashkenazy is of one mind with Thibaudet in this work, and he and the Cleveland Orchestra give the soloist ripely romantic support. Their work in the Adagio is especially luscious while never cloying, remaining gentle in tone and transparent in texture, but there is not a moment in this performance that is less than satisfying. Altogether, this is one of the freshest interpretations of this work that I have heard in a long time, and I cannot recommend it enough.
This is a perfect example of “opposites attract,” with the coolly elegant Pierre Entremont paired with the passionate Leonard Bernstein, but instead of clashing, these two complement and play off one another rather well. In terms of sheer sex appeal, this performance threatens to go off the charts, with Entremont’s crystalline passagework in the first movement glimmering against Lenny’s darkly smoldering New York strings.
However, after all the ardor of the first two movements, the finale falls off quite a bit, as though after courtship in the first movement and intimacy in the second, Bernstein wants to back out of full commitment in the third. He seems strangely perfunctory, most noticeably at the first of the “Full Moon and Empty Arms” episodes (the second comes off a little better), while Entremont appears more committed, phrasing with greater sensitivity, and maintaining greater tension and excitement in the music that follows.
As much as I would like to recommend this performance, I would much prefer three satisfying movements instead of only two, even if the heat of those two threatens to melt the disc
“Magisterial” best describes Van Cliburn’s approach to the Rachmaninov – a grand unfolding of the music, with a spaciousness and languor in the outer movements that was part of his trademark. Some may find that approach unexciting or lacking “bite.” Others will have no problem luxuriating in these deep-pile melodies, as Cliburn does here.
Cliburn’s emphasis is on letting the melodies sing, and he does so admirably, with an unforced, golden tone that hearkens back to the early 20th century heyday of great pianism. Even in rapid figuration, the pianist’s focus is on vocalization, balancing each phrase and weighing the rise and fall of notes much as a singer would. He also does a great job of highlighting and coloring inner voices – the solo entry at the beginning of the finale is a prime example – so that we hear multiple singers from the keyboard instead of only one.
Fritz Reiner wonderfully seconds Cliburn here. There is a much better working chemistry here than in Reiner’s recording with Rubinstein, and the conductor had mellowed somewhat in the six years between the two recordings. This does not mean the Chicago Symphony was a less precise instrument that before. Far from it – the playing and articulation throughout the piece is no less than miraculous, and sounding better than ever in this Living Stereo release. Highly recommended.
Since I enjoyed Hélène Grimaud’s recording of the Rachmaninov Second Sonata and Opus 33 Etudes Tableaux (Denon 1054, full-price), I looked forward to her take on the Second Concerto. Like the music on the earlier disc, Grimaud’s playing is beautifully articulated, with a firm tone and some compelling ideas about phrasing and emphasis. Unlike Evgeny Kissin, whose recording I heard just before this one, Grimaud makes every phrase sing, which links passages together nicely and gives her playing a welcome, flowing quality not enough pianists today possess.
Unfortunately, Grimaud seems to have caught the “slow is profound” malady that infected Kissin’s performance. This is a low-voltage performance of the Second, which is frustrating because there are so many good things in Grimaud’s playing. Without that extra burst of energy, the first two movements plod quietly along. A broadly lyrical version of the Second could work, but it is a very tricky proposition to pull off, and needs more blood in its veins than either Grimaud or Kissin give us.
Grimaud has said that her view of the Second has changed considerably since making this recording, and has re-recorded this work with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting. Hopefully, it will be a vast improvement over this one.
My main complaint with this disc is not with the performance itself, but with Sony’s packaging. For many years, this recording of the Rachmaninov was paired with Gary Graffman and Leonard Bernstein’s dynamic Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini – probably one of the best versions of the work this side of the composer’s own. If you want these performances in optimum sound, you now have to buy two discs to get what was for many years on one. Hopefully, Sony will rectify this error by reuniting these performances on one of its Bernstein Century discs.
That said, Graffman’s reading is a strong one, with a rich, deep tone that seems to rise from the floor and a wealth of colors perfectly suited to this work – all things that Graffman’s studying with Vladimir Horowitz did not hurt a bit. He takes fewer liberties with the solo line, with touches more understated, than pianists like Jean-Yves Thibaudet or Tamás Vásàry. Some have called Graffman’s playing business-like as a result, but that is not really a fair accusation. In a sense, Graffman was much like Leonard Pennario, as well as the composer himself, in being a pianist of moderation rather than extremes, turning in emotionally honest and deeply satisfying performances without having to turn the piano upside down or pull the melodic line apart to get his point across.
Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic give full-bodied support, obtaining an especially rounded tone from the brass. Though the strings do not sound as full or supple they do in Bernstein’s recording with Philippe Entremont – the violins sound especially thin in the “Full Moon and Empty Arms” episodes – the general level of playing is more than satisfactory, and Bernstein is more balanced in his general commitment. Recommended.
The first movement grinds to a virtual halt whenever Evgeny Kissin slows his playing at attempts at profundity, and stasis sets in like rigor mortis in a corpse. The fact that he does not employ a true legato, declaiming the solo line rather than singing it, does not help. Normally this would not be a problem, simply a difference in style. However, without linking the notes in the musical line, as a legato approach would allow, slowing the tempo as much as Kissin does becomes doubly dangerous, as each individual note not only stays isolated but dissipates too much before the next note is played. That is too bad, because when Kissin does not engage in this habit, the performance improves considerably.
He and Valery Gergiev play off one another gamely in the Adagio, with piano and strings taking turns phrasing the musical line in ever-changing ways, and are never less than interesting in doing so. The finale is even finer, with fireworks galore in a rip-roaring tear through the music. If it were not for the problematical first movement, this performance would be one of my recommendations. As it is now, it promises more than it delivers.
The solo works that follow are less successful. With his steely fingers and larger-than-life tone, Kissin would seem a natural for the Opus 39 Etudes Tableaux, with their hints not only of Rachmaninov’s later works, but also of Scriabin and Prokofiev. Although there are plenty of Second Concerto recordings, there are not enough of these etudes, and first-rate recordings of these works are rare.
Other than including only six etudes when all nine would have fit with room to spare, Kissin turns in performances that are soft-centered, lacking the edge and harmonic bite these works demand. Worse, Kissin belabors several etudes, with speedings, slowings and odd phrasings and emphases that work against the flow of the music. Hearing Freddy Kempf’s recording after this one was like taking a breath of fresh air.
Vladimir Horowitz never got around to recording the Second Concerto, but two of his students did – Gary Graffman, who gave a strong and emotionally steady performance with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (above), and Byron Janis, whose performance with Antal Dorati and the Minneapolis Symphony is edgier, more mercurial, not as solid in tone but fleeter fingered and no less satisfying – in some ways perhaps more so, depending on your point of view.
Both pianists share a Horowitzian sense of tone color, which gives the solo part a bewitching variety of half lights and shadings, and between the two of them, a listener can get some idea of how Volodya would have approached this concerto himself. I can’t help thinking, though, that Horowitz’s playing would have more closely resembled Janis’s than Graffman’s.
Janis plays with the musical line more broadly than Graffman, making greater use of ritards, hesitations and flexible tempi to get his expressive points across. These musical punctuation points stop short of becoming outright mannerisms, but they tease our ears and freshen the music rather effectively. There is also a higher current of electricity in Janis’s playing, and a thorough sense of the unexpected in how the music could unfold from moment to moment. The two solo works that follow share the same characteristics, and are given the most colorful and elegantly songful performances this side of Horowitz.
The one bad thing about the Mercury recording is, as well remastered as it was in 1991, the sound, though fully serviceable, is starting to show its age. If you want a fuller overview of Janis’s playing while graduating to better sound, you can kill two birds with one stone by picking up Janis’s two disc Philips set of concertos and solo works. Part of the “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” series, the performances are uniformly excellent and in richer sound than the Mercury disc. The drawback is that you do not get Janis’s exemplary Rachmaninov Third Concerto with Dorati or the solo Rachmaninov works. If you can afford it, it is well worth purchasing both discs.
This performance is a prime example of the phrase, “Oldie but goodie.” Inkpotter Isaak Koh called it well-paced and beautifully played, though the orchestra to him was less than clear at times. Though I have gone back and forth on Jenö Jandó’s playing through the years, my experiences have been more positive than negative, so I broke down and gave this disc a whirl for myself.
As a moderately paced, at times broadly lyrical performance, Jandó’s performance succeeds where Evgeny Kissin and Hélène Grimaud fail. Though his playing is not as compellingly articulated or phrased as Grimaud’s, he pumps considerably more life and heart into this music than she does, and that makes all the difference. At the same time, Jandó knows where to pull back and let the music linger. His final measures in the first movement are slower than nearly everyone else’s, but instead of dragging, they tantalize a listener’s ears with an almost-magical suspension of time.
The playing of Budapest Symphony is not the uniformly finest I have heard – the clarinet solo that opens the Adagio could be silkier and finer-toned – nor is György Lehel’s conducting the most sensitive, but both are on the whole satisfactory. The recording is spacious, but not overly so, and the lack of detail that Isaak mentioned did not bother me. More than enough of the music comes through to tell what is going on.
Naxos now has three recordings of this concerto in print – this one, Bernd Glemser’s and Idil Biret’s. This one is in some ways the finest of the three, and I seriously hope the company keeps this one in print for a long time to come.
865: 14.3.2001 Jonathan Yungkans; Evan Stephens.
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