RACHMANINOV Complete Piano Concertos, et al. Wild (Chandos/Chesky) – INKPOT

Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Complete Piano Concertos
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Jascha Horenstein

CHANDOS Enchant CHAN 7114
2 discs [2h 13:31] upper mid-price

Please see below for performer details and alternative formats.

by Jonathan Yungkans and Isaak Koh
Chandos has re-released these classic recordings as a two-disc set on its upper-mid-price Enchant series – very convenient for the one-stop shopper. At first glance, the three Chesky discs of the same performances (detailed below) would not seem as good a bargain. However, they offer clearer, more realistic sound than Chandos (albeit transferred at a lower volume), as well as some valuable extras. The discmate for the Second Concerto, along with two solo works, is Jascha Horenstein’s romantically lush and powerfully searing Isle of the Dead, while coupled with the Third Concerto is Earl Wild’s equally convincing traversal of Edward MacDowell’s Second Piano Concerto.

The Rachmaninov concertos, full of Romantic passion and sublime melody, carry an extreme emotional charge that can very often subvert pianists and conductors into over-sentimentality. No such dangers lurk here. Wild and Horenstein play with appropriate restraint, but also with considerable fire and ardor. It is an anti-Romantic approach, but one that allows the power, beauty and emotional fullness of these pieces to speak for themselves.

The recordings are warm, emphasizing the rich, luxurious sound of the orchestra. However, the balance of the recording is tipped in favor of the soloist, which is appropriate given the virtuoso nature of the concerto. As a result, the microphones vividly capture Wild’s brilliant technique. In contrast, the orchestra is made to seem small and distant at times. This robs the orchestra of sonic impact at climatic moments. But this also means that even during loud passages, the piano can be heard clearly through the orchestra.

In Wild (above/left) and Horenstein’s hands, the First Concerto is a commanding portent of things to come, with the opening brass flourishes answered by a blazing run down the keyboard. As much as Peter Rösel and Kurt Sanderling illustrate the merits of more moderate pacing in their traversal , there is something undeniably thrilling about Wild’s seat-of-the-pants approach, which never comes off as anything less than steely, fully committed playing.

At the same time, Wild does not cheapen the work or slight its content. He has the full measure of Rachmaninov’s melodies, allowing them to sing gloriously throughout the work and slowing enough in the quieter moments to let them breathe. His playing of the first movement cadenza – at first ardent, then tender before turning up the heat once move – is a wonder in its own right. The brief Andante is simple and songful, while the final Allegro, though taken a little too impetuously at times for my taste, scampers with considerable energy and high spirited fun, giving bunk to the public image of Rachmaninov as “six-feet-three of Russian gloom.”

Piano Concerto No. 2
Isle of the Dead
Marche Militaire (arr. Tausig)
Invitation to the Dance (arr. Tausig)
[65:43] full-price

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.

Piano Concerto No.3
Piano Concerto No. 2*
RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/ Freccia*

[62:31] full-price

In the Third Concerto, Wild and Horenstein fully convey the arc of this work from deep-seated emotional turmoil to conclusive joy. The strings of the Royal Philharmonic play marvelously in the intermezzo, painting the serenity most convincingly, while the third movement becomes a tour-de-force for the pianist. The confident mood of the movement is potently conveyed by Wild, his touch ever so precise here. There is no doubt that we are in the hands of a master. The orchestra is also a major contributor, the precision of the full chords blowing all reservations away.

As excellent as this performance is in general, there are two caveats. The first is the quirky cadenza where Wild seems to lose control slightly and play with a jerky rhythm. The second is that Wild and Horenstein observe many of the cuts the composer made in this score in the 1930s, which tend to fragment the overall structure and make the piece sound unduly jumpy where those excisions occur.

The Fourth Concerto is perhaps the finest performance in the set, with soloist and conductor turning in an unashamedly riveting traversal that makes this work as substantial as its three predecessors. It is also the only performance I have yet come across that emphasizes the concerto’s jazz influence as much as its Russianness. If the last statement sounds slightly outlandish for general listeners, it is only because the subject is so seldom discussed. Rachmaninov liked jazz, though he did not care for swing. He was on friendly terms with Duke Ellington and later Art Tatum, and much of what Rachmaninov heard filters into his late music.

Wild gives the Fourth a brassy panache that fits the work to a tee while illustrating much of what Rachmaninov had heard while living in New York in the 1920’s – not only George Gershwin (he attended Paul Whiteman’s premiere of Rhapsody in Blue), but also the jazz bands of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. It is an unorthodox interpretation, but also an illuminating and highly valid one.

Piano Concerto Nos. 1 & 4
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
[68:51] full-price

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is given a breathlessly virtuosic turn (at 20:32, it is one of the fastest I have come across) – perhaps too breathless. This piece should sound both rhapsodic and brilliant, and many pianists sacrifice the former to the latter. Wild’s performance is too driven and unrelenting, sacrificing much of the work’s wit and color in the process, and making it seem less substantial than the concertos. Though many of the faster moments, the orchestra has to scramble to keep up, sounding ragged at times in the process.

Any set of Rachmaninov concertos has its plusses and minuses. Nevertheless, for the cost conscious buyer who wants bracing playing and interpretations that let the music speak well enough on its own, this may be the set for you. For those who want more lingering, sumptuously Romantic interpretations that take considerably more liberties without falling into mannerisms, Tamás Vásàry may be more to your liking.

In between these two extremes – more poetic than Wild but less indulgent than Vásàry – are Agustin Anievas and Peter Rösel. The Vásàry and Anievas sets are two-fers, and the Rösel – so far the most satisfying set as a whole, and in excellent sound – is on two mid-price discs. This means they are cheaper than the Wild, though Vásàry’s set contains only the four concertos. (The same is true with the mid-price Rösels, but they can be supplemented with Rösel’s Rhapsody on a budget disc, which still gets you in for a couple of dollars less than the Wild.) Whatever you buy really depends on what you expect from your Rachmaninov.

On the other hand, if you want the best sound for your money and desire at least some of these performances, you may want to consider the Chesky. Not only is Wild’s revelatory Fourth reason enough to buy that disc (with his First really not far behind), but the fillers on the other two make them worth investigating, as well. Horenstein’s Isle of the Dead should be in the collection of any serious Rachophile, and anyone interested in Romantic piano concertos could do far worse than Wild’s scintillating MacDowell Second, a concerto still seriously under-represented in the catalog (though Van Cliburn’s recording is nothing to sneer at, either).

ISAAK KOH has faithfully followed the World Cup, and unfaithfully accidentally missed Millennium. What about a “Balls” Symphony? Meanwhile, although JONATHAN YUNGKANS is not a sports fan, he is trying his best to be less faithful to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, so he does not become as round as a ball himself.

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8xx: 15.3.2001 Jonathan Yungkans; Isaak Koh.

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