Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 2 & 3 (CD review)

Simon Trpceski, piano; Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Avie AV2192.

These days it often takes a little something extra to sell a compact disc, especially when so many great artists have recorded most of the basic repertoire so well. I mean, what do you do when there are already classic recordings of the Rachmaninov Piano Concertos by the likes of Horowitz, Ashkenazy, Cliburn, Janis, Wild, Argerich, and, among others, Rachmaninov himself? The answer in the case of this Avie album is to couple the composer's two most-popular concertos on a single disc.

Now, you'd think that would be easy, and everyone would have already done it by now.  But that's not the case. The Byron Janis disc on Mercury Living Presence pairs the Second and Third Concertos, but most discs do not. The two concertos are popular enough by themselves to sell a single disc apiece, thus assuring a record company of doubling its profits. So Avie took the road less traveled and offer them together, the disc's running time a little over seventy-six minutes. Good for Avie. Maybe the gambit will pay off by selling twice as many CDs.

Anyway, Vasily Petrenko and his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic continue their coverage of Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), this time with pianist Simon Trpceski. The composer famously premiered his Concerto No. 2 in 1901 after hypnotherapy. The failure of his First Symphony so shook him that he feared he'd never write another note of music, and he'd try anything. The hypnotherapy apparently worked because the result was the Concerto No. 2, an immediate success.

While Trpceski misses a little something of the big, grand gestures we so love in Rachmaninov, he does catch the sweeping lyricism of the piece. He is most pleasing in the liltingly Romantic sections, where he lets his fingers fly off into dizzying flights of fancy. Needless to say, that means it's the dreamy second-movement Adagio that works best for him.

Along with the Second Symphony, the Second Piano Concerto came to epitomize the Rachmaninov sound and style, and Trpceski and company do their best to remind us of this.

By the time the Third Piano Concerto came along in 1909, it seemed like a continuation of the Second Concerto. The composer had obviously found his voice. Rachmaninov said he wanted the first movement to "sing," and so it does, in a soaring, graceful manner. The music is more serious and demanding than the Second Concerto, and Trpceski meets the requirement to the point of choosing to play one of Rachmaninov's more-intense alternative cadenzas, one even the composer found daunting.

Again, Trpceski is a bit more at home in the melancholy second movement than elsewhere, and from there on it's a kind of headlong race to the finish, which is entirely Rachmaninov's fault so don't blame the piano player. The composer created a sometimes unwieldy third-movement Finale in which he seemed to be trying to outdo himself, leaving lyricism behind for dramatic, grandiose musical statements. Fortunately, Trpceski maintains an even keel without going overboard, even though the music is still a tad hectic.

Avie recorded the two concertos in April and August of 2009 in Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall, and they obtained a slightly soft, thick, veiled orchestral sound to accompany the piano. Nevertheless, the audio engineers incorporate the piano exceptionally well into the mix. There isn't much orchestral depth behind the piano, though, nor, as I say, do we find much ultimate transparency. Maybe it's for the best because it forces the listener to concentrate on the primary instrument, which is as it should be. This is the sort of disc on which you have to turn the volume up a touch higher than usual for best results. Then, things come alive, with a wide dynamic range and a solid impact that are the dominant features of the sonic presentation.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa