Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 4 (CD review)

Also, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Simon Trpceski, piano; Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Avie AV2191.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 1, in 1891, while he was still a teenage student at the Moscow Conservatoire. But he didn't revise it in the form we know today until 1917, well after audiences grew to love his Second and Third Concertos. Consequently, it never did match the popularity of the other works, perhaps rightly so, too, as it is a rather youthful piece, full of helter-skelter ideas. Apparently, the young Rachmaninov tried to put everything into it but the kitchen sink.

In any case, with pianist Simon Trpceski and conductor Vasily Petrenko (who earlier gave us the two middle concertos) the First Concerto is dreamy when it needs to be dreamy, powerful, dramatic, sentimental, and sensitive when it needs to be powerful, dramatic, sentimental and sensitive. Trpceski and Petrenko play as one, with the pianist providing the substance and the conductor and orchestra filling in the accompaniment as though a part of the piano. In other words, they work well together.

By the time Rachmaninov wrote the Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 40, in 1926, he was an established superstar pianist and composer. Audiences expected everything from him to be of the caliber of his previous work, particularly the Second and Third Piano Concertos and the Second Symphony. The Fourth Piano Concerto didn't live up; never has. Which is not to say there aren't some good, even wonderful things in it, which Trpceski and Petrenko are more than happy to share. For instance, there is the clearly modern introduction, the sometimes disjointed but entirely intoxicating rhythms, and, of course, the occasional but unmistakable elements of jazzy American blues, no doubt the influence of Rachmaninov having heard George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue the year before.

Nevertheless, despite the disappointments of the First and Fourth Piano Concertos, the composer was not out of the ball game. In 1934 he wrote his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, based on Niccolo Paganini's Caprice No. 24, and it has won over listeners ever since with its interplay of virtuosic piano parts and a dark Dies Irae chant.

Again, the pianist and conductor are at one, the piano hopping, skipping, and jumping around the Paganini variations, and both the piano and the orchestra countering with the funeral tune. Trpceski displays his dazzling finger work and Petrenko his unfailingly sympathetic support to produce a remarkably moving new interpretation of the score.

Avie recorded the performances at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, England, in 2009 (Rhapsody), 2010 (Concerto No. 1), and 2011 (Concerto No. 4). In each case, the sound is somewhat close, with a broad stereo spread and a relatively clean piano tone but not the best midrange transparency or orchestral depth. However, an exceptionally wide dynamic range and a strong impact help make up for any minor drawbacks. Besides, the size and warmth of the sonics tend to complement the Romantic nature of the music.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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