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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa