RACHMANINOV The Second Piano Concerto: Recordings Survey Part 1 – INKPOT

PART 1 Rubinstein/Reiner (RCA)Rösel/Sanderling (Berlin) |Rudy/Jansons (EMI)
Biret/Wit (Naxos)Ashkenazy/Kondrashin (Decca)Gavrilov/Muti (EMI)
Glemser/Wit (Naxos)Wild/Horenstein (Chandos) |Vásàry/Ahronovitch (DG)
Ogawa/Hughes (BIS)Katchen/Solti (Decca)Eresko/Provatorov (Melodiya)

PART 2 Anievas/Atzmon (EMI)Richter/Wislocki (DG) |Ashkenazy/Previn (Decca) Thibaudet/Ashkenazy (Decca) |Entremont/Bernstein (Sony)Cliburn/Reiner (RCA)
Grimaud/Lopez-Cobos (Denon)Graffman/Bernstein (Sony) |Kissin/Gergiev (RCA)
Janis/Dorati (Mercury)Jandó/Lehel (Naxos)

PART 3 (HISTORIC) Rubinstein/Golschmann (RCA) |Gieseking/Mengelberg (Music & Arts) |
Rubinstein/Koussevitsky (Rockport)Pennario/Golschmann (EMI)
Kapell/Steinberg (RCA)Rachmaninov/Stokowski (Naxos) |Smith/Sargent (Dutton)Rachmaninov/Stokowski (Biddulph) |Richter/Sanderling (Revelation)
Moiseiwitch/Goehr (Appian)
Lympany/Susskind (Olympia)

The Second Piano Concerto
Recordings Survey Part 1 | 
Part 2
Part 3Inktroductionby Jonathan Yungkans

(unless otherwise specified)

Piano Concerto No. 2. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Fritz Reiner

RCA 63035 (The Rubinstein Edition, Vol. 35)
[ 60:38] mid-price. Piano Concerto No. 2 (33:08) recorded 1956. (This release: August 2000.)

Artur Rubinstein recorded the Second Concerto twice in stereo – this performance and a much later one with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra that is currently not available. Tempi in his traversal with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony are usually brisk, the general conception almost businesslike in its anti-romantic stance, so if you want a more poetic interpretation, you may not want to check this out.

Nevertheless, this recording has a few things going for it, not the least of which is Rubinstein’s assured playing and glorious tone. While not mooning over details, he gives the music its full due in sentiment, and there is a welcome thrust to his playing that lets the melodies speak for themselves. This combined with a sparkling quality he gives to the march section at the start of the third movement make his contributions all the more appealing.

That said, there are some things I seriously missed in this recording. As is the case in many concerto recordings, Rubinstein is placed too far forward in the sound picture, ruining the concertante approach the composer intended and losing some detail in the orchestra. Also, Reiner seems intent on pushing things along a little too briskly at times, losing much of the charm in the second movement, not to mention the “Full Moon and Empty Arms” sections of the finale, in the process. He would be much more amiable six years later in his recording with Van Cliburn. The sound, remastered for this release, is the best it has ever been.

Piano Concerto No. 2. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Berlin Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Kurt Sanderling

[ 60:12] budget price. Concerto No. 2 (36:46) recorded 1982. (This release: May 2000.) Also available on Berlin Classics 9307, mid-price, with Concerto No. 1.

Peter Rösel and Kurt Sanderling lived and performed in what was formerly called East Germany in the bad old days before the Berlin Wall came crashing down. Both studied in the then Soviet Union. They know the style, the passion, the wistfulness and melancholy of Rachmaninov’s concertos, and perform those pieces as though those qualities are in their blood.

They also take great care in balancing the overall architecture of these works in equal measure with highlighting details, illustrating more than usual how those details help support the whole edifice. It is a symphonic concept – not a mainly pianistic one, nor an overtly orchestral one, but an approach combining the best of both those worlds, emphasizing that these are works for piano and orchestra in equal measure. This concept strengthens the many charms these concertos have to offer, and illuminates the embarrassment of riches Rachmaninov wrote into them.

Their rendition of the Second Concerto does not want for tension and gains in resolve, especially in its opening measures (has anyone heard the low notes in the left hand tolled as bell-like, or underpin the piano solo quite so solidly?). The lower strings are both luscious and melancholy, the piano every bit their equal in both interpretation and sound, and the lower brass a subtle but firm support for the strings, warm-sounding and never strident. I had always thought of Rachmaninov’s orchestration of this concerto as string-heavy, but here the wind and brass parts are given their due, adding colors and textures I did not know were written into the piece.

The recorded sound is clear, rich, almost tactile. At the same time, there is no artificial spotlighting with the microphones. Everything is naturally balanced, with a good front-balcony ambiance. (Excerpt from the full review)

Piano Concerto Nos. 1-4. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1.

St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Mariss Jansons

EMI CZS 573765-2
3 discs[3.21:15] budget-price. Concerto No. 2 (35:28) recorded 1991 (This release: April 2000). Also available with the Tchaikovksy on EMI CDC 754232-2 .

Calling the teamwork here superb would be a terrible understatement. The interplay between soloist and orchestra is so complete and satisfying that all the players seem to share a common nervous system. Mariss Jansons and Mikhail Rudy give a performance almost lushly romantic in sound and approach, caressing the more relaxed moments lovingly while never losing sight of the work’s structure or the general thrust of the music. This is a performance that, while a little too thought out to seem totally fresh, contains its fair share of ideas.

Even the soloist’s opening measures have a lot more going on than usual. Instead of the typical build-up of sonority, Rudy carefully shapes the inner voices running through this progression of chords, creating harmonic tension and melodic progression while changing his touch with each individual chord to vary tone color. Instead of invoking only one bell, Rudy gives us several. This performance is full of such touches from soloist and orchestra.

The sonic picture is a little bright and close-up for my taste. Although there is some hall presence, I would have much preferred a warmer, more naturally balanced ambiance, though some listeners will appreciate the x-ray clarity of orchestral sound presented here. Altogether, this performance would not be my personal first pick, but there is more than enough here to make it a compelling one.

Piano Concerto Nos. 2 & 3.

Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Antoni Wit

NAXOS 8.554476
[79:18] budget-price. Concerto No. 2 (35:28)

Rohan Harith wrote:
Idil Biret opts for a restraint performance, preferring not to indulge in emotional ostentation. Just as in Rachmaninov’s own recordings of the Second Concerto which appear at first blush, emotionally austere, repeated listenings however reveal Ms Biret’s performance to be both elegant and thoughtful.

Moments which are wonderful to listen to include the recapitulation of the 1st movement (beginning at 6:50). The soloist and orchestra unite in a thumping performance, evoking a rousing military pageant, complete with pomp and splendour. The slow movement is especially haunting. The playing is sensitive and the theme of love lost and found is beautifully presented. In the final movement the second theme (at 6:26) is very atmospheric and conjures a scene of a marketplace somewhere in the Middle East. Not long after, the grand Lawrence of Arabia recapitulation makes a reappearance (10:27) before the movement races towards a triumphant climax. (Excerpts from the full review)

Piano Concerto Nos. 2* and 3.

Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Kirill Kondrashin *
London Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Anatole Fistoulari

DECCA Legends 466375-2
[ 77:14] mid-price. Piano Concerto No. 2 (33:19) recorded 1963. (This release: September 1999.)

Generally, I prefer Vladimir Ashkenazy’s early recordings over his later ones, being fresher in interpretation and more interesting pianistically. This is no exception. His opening solo is extremely compelling, with those low repeated F notes literally sinking into bedrock. He uses considerable rubati in the first movement, which makes his playing seem all the more spontaneous and never mannered. The way he lingers beginning at 4:10 is magical. He also gives a wonderfully pearly touch to leading voices, such as the agitated section beginning at 5:17 and the conclusion of this movement.

Through the entire piece, Kirill Kondrashin gives Ashkenazy equally spontaneous and full-blooded support, eliciting gorgeous playing from the Moscow Philharmonic. While there are some obviously Russian touches in the orchestral playing, most notably in the “wah-wah” vibrato of the trumpets and horns in the third movement – they are more noticeable than obtrusive and do not detract from the performance. Adding to the excellent music-making is the 24-bit remastered sound, with good clarity and an excellent large hall presence. Altogether, this disc lives up to its billing as a Decca Legend and is a must-have. Do not pass it up. (Excerpt from full review.)

Piano Concerto No. 2. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The Philadelphia Orchestra
conducted by Riccardo Muti

EMI Classics Seraphim 73429-2
[ 58:35] budget-price. Piano Concerto No. 2 (36:12) recorded 1991. (This release: June 1999. Also available on EMI Red Line CDR 5 69829-2 )

Altogether, this isn’t a bad Rachmaninov Second Concerto, but there are others with more going for them. Andrei Gavrilov’s playing is capable enough, but he emphasizes the virtuoso aspects of his playing at the expense of poetry, and his occasional mannerisms, such as his pauses in the measures immediately following the first movement climax (the section beginning at 6:24), impede the flow of the music rather than accentuate it. The quieter sections of this work fall flat – a nearly deadly flaw by itself – and at other times, Gavrilov’s attempts to be profound by playing slowly come across awkwardly.

Hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra here, I sorely missed how the orchestra’s strings sounded under Eugene Ormandy. They were a marvel at that time – not now. Someone on an e-list to which I subscribe wrote me about another concerto recording, “Who cares about the strings anyway?” Actually, the strings mean a lot in this concerto, since they carry so much of the melodic weight, but they are nothing special here. Another reason to avoid this recording.

Piano Concerto Nos. 2 and 3.

Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Antoni Wit

NAXOS 8.550810
[77:14] budget-price. Piano Concerto No. 2 (33:25) recorded 1996. (This release: September 1998.)
Listen to Samples

Since these performers had done an exceptional job on the three Tchaikovsky piano concerti and Concert Fantasy, I had hoped that lightning would strike twice on this recording. I was not disappointed, though I had to change gears after hearing more poetic interpretations such as Ashkeanzy/Kondrashin. Bernd Glemser’s reading of the Second Concerto is not prosaic, but clear eyed and straightforward, with a powerful rhythmic thrust in the opening measures and a satisfying musicality throughout the piece. In that sense, it reminded me very much of Rubinstein/Reiner, but with better sound and a conductor in less of a hurry to get things over with.

I had heard Glemser play capably enough in Tchaikovsky, and with flashes of wit in Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations, but I had never heard him in so full-blooded a manner as here. Judging by his progress so far, I would say that he is definitely not afraid of growing and maturing in his interpretations, and I would be very curious to hear how he plays this piece in another 10 years or so. Meanwhile, I will keep this disc around as a reminder of how far he has come so far.

Equally fine is Antoni Wit’s conducting of the Polish National Radio Symphony, which is sensitive, finely shaded and at times fervent – a perfect complement to Glemser’s playing. The recorded sound is recessed, with enough hall presence to give plenty of air around the notes, yet clear enough to let orchestral details shine through. You could do far worse than this for budget price.

Piano Concerto Nos 1-4. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Jascha Horenstein

CHANDOS Enchant CHAN 7114
2 discs [2.13:31] mid-price. Piano Concerto No 2 (30:23) recorded 1966. (This release: August 1999.)

No. 2 also available on Chesky CD 02 (single disc, full-price) with Isle of the Dead and other works. SEE FULL REVIEW

Jonathan Yungkans and Isaak Koh write:
In the Second Concerto, Wild’s keyboard prowess is a delight to listen to. He sharply articulates the astoundingly numerous notes at the closing section of the first movement. He does, to these ears, rush through the memorable return section before this, not giving enough emphatic weight to these dramatic chords — other pianists seem to make more of this.

In the deeply moving second movement, the musicians never succumb to the temptation to linger over the notes, keeping things actively flowing and making the sublime questioning main theme expressive without becoming cloy. They play the third movement with moderate speed, allowing for clear articulation of the notes and making the music a wonder to hear. Wild plays with urgency without sacrificing clarity, while able to inject the appropriate power at the repeat of the opening theme.

The Chesky single disc offers clearer, more realistic sound than Chandos (albeit transferred at a lower volume), as well as two solo works as encores and Jascha Horenstein’s romantically lush and powerfully searing Isle of the Dead, which should be in the collection of any serious Rachophile. (Excerpts from the full review)

Piano Concerto Nos. 1-4.

London Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Yuri Ahronovitch

2 discs [2.20.01] mid/budget-price. Piano Concerto No. 2 (36:11) recorded 1976. (This release: July 1998.)

This is probably the dreamiest, most languid performance of the Second Concerto that I have heard, but it never drags or becomes less than compelling. The opening piano notes sound like church bells echoing slowly though an early morning fog, or through mists of memory, gradually becoming louder as we come closer. Those bells keep tolling even while the strings lean into the main theme, and we hear lighter bells in some of the piano figurations closer to the middle and upper range of the keyboard.

While not as steely-fingered as Ashkenazy, Tamás Vásàry is no slouch in the technical department. He articulates just as clearly, letting us hear all the filigree and the intricacy of Rachmaninov’s passagework. What is more, Vásàry is even more poetic, stretching tempi further than many would dare to bring out the splendor in each phrase. In other pianists hands, this approach would run the risk of sounding overly wayward. But for Vásàry, this approach works beautifully in too many instances to list here. And when some passages require more drama, he supplies it readily, with Yuri Ahronovich and the London Symphony always at his side with vibrant support – perhaps the most colorful instrumental playing this side of Leopold Stokowski, well-shaped and truly opulent.

Piano Concerto Nos. 2 and 3

Malmö Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Owain Arwel Hughes

[80:04] full-price. This release: September 1997.

Johann D’Souza writes:
Noriko Ogawa puts a lot of feeling into her playing, with clear fluidity and smoothness. While she does not have the virtuosic tendencies of the Russian players (evident in their strength in chords and the speed in which they take their runs), in the warmer moments the Russians seldom show any sign of emotion.

Noriko Ogawa not only displays a keen sense of intonation but is never rushed. The ending of the first movement and the beginning of the second with the flute and clarinet solos is taken slowly with charm, and with a certain sense of introspection which I feel are important ingredients in making this a success. However the clarinet solo should have played with a little more forte, to allow a bit more clarity in the accompaniment. The Malmö Symphony Orchestra leaves a lot to be desired in the first movement, with bouts of drowning the soloist – there are points where she lacks the heavy chordic playing associated with Rachmaninov. This is where the arena falls into the hands of pianist like Gavrilov and Argerich.

In the third movement, the orchestral playing at 6’53” displays a greater sense of lyricism which it is capable of producing. Ogawa’s entry however is marred by a sense of wanting to finish off quickly. This could have been taken with a bit more restraint. The run just before the tutti at 10’50” is also a bit untidy with the sound from the orchestra sounding a bit distant. While this Concerto has many beautiful moments, there are segments which are marred by overzealous orchestral markings – thus not giving the soloist the opportunity to display her full dexterity. (Excerpt from the full review)

Piano Concerto No. 2.* Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Dohnányi: Variations on a Nursery Theme.

London Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Sir Georg Solti*
London Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Sir Adrian Boult

DECCA/LONDON Classic Sound 448604-2
[78:31] mid-price. Piano Concerto No. 2 (32:54) recorded 1958. (This release: July 1997.)

Julius Katchen and Sir Georg Solti take a highly athletic, non-romantic approach to the first movement, clocking in at a blistering 9:48. (Most performances run between ten-and-a-half and 12 minutes.) Fast and exciting or brusque and brutal, take your pick, but these guys do not stick around long enough to wear out their welcome. Personally, I think the speed robs the music of grandeur and impact, but will admit that Katchen and Solti do get the adrenaline going, and can see how many people would consider this performance a favorite.

The adagio, conversely, is exceedingly gentle, with sensitive playing from Katchen and luminous support from Solti. The clarinet solo at the beginning of this movement is especially noteworthy, with a luscious tone and almost inhuman breath control. There is still an impetuous streak that surfaces in more agitated passages, but here there is enough gossamer to balance out the skittishness.

The finale starts out at a standard tempo, though you get the impression that Katchen would not mind going faster, and you almost expect him to after his race through the first movement. Still, this movement does not want for excitement, with Katchen and Solti occasionally sprinting through their passages and pressing the London Symphony to keep up. For the most part, the players have no trouble, though there are notes occasionally cut off in mid-phrase.

One definite challenge with this performance is the sound. Like many recordings in the Classic Sound series, the remastering was not totally effective. Though the general sound picture is clear, the strings tend to become wiry in forte passages, and there is both a hollowness in the mid-range and a boominess to the lower notes of the piano. Hopefully, Decca will see fit to re-release this performance on the Decca Legends label in an improved remastering, just as the label did for Peter Maag’s performance of the Mendelssohn “Scotch” Symphony.

Piano Concerto Nos. 1-4. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

USSR Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Gennady Provatorov

MELODIYA Two-fers 40068-2
2 discs [2.26:52] budget-price. Piano Concerto No. 2 (34:23) recorded 1984. (This release: May 1997.)

Victor Eresko’s opening moments in the Second Concerto tend to drag as they refuse to do for Vásàry, but things improve as the performance progresses. He phrases very persuasively in the first movement, with a genuine sense of poetry and gripping technique. Interesting details abound, such as his left-hand work at 5:15 and 5:25, and how he mirrors the strings in their shimmering passagework at that point. He also has a tendency to stretch phrases in a less natural sounding way than Ashkenazy or Vásàry, especially in the second half of the movement.

The adagio is more straightforward and flowing, but it is in the finale where this performance truly comes into its own. Eresko’s articulation becomes increasingly varied, his tone more multi-faceted, and he generates considerable excitement in the march episodes with all the textures he pulls from the keyboard. He also brings some of his most heartfelt playing in the “Full Moon and Empty Arms” episodes. If Erensko had only played this well in the first movement, with less pulling apart of phrases, this performance would get an unqualified recommendation. As it is, I would still pick Ashkenazy, Rösel or Vásàry over this one, though Eresko makes for an interesting alternative.

The playing of the USSR Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Provatorov is generally capable but a little stiff at times, with some noticeably over-prominent horn playing in the adagio and brass playing overblown enough at the climax of the finale to lift you out of your chair a few inches.

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