Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 (CD review)

Leif Ove Andsnes, piano; Antonio Pappano, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 7243 4 74813 2.

Even today when his name is one of the cornerstones of classical music, Sergei Rachmaninov gets slammed by his detractors for being too old-fashioned, too romantic, too overtly bombastic. Fortunately, the negative criticism has abated quite a lot since Rachmaninov's early days, and recordings like this one from Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes continue to help the composer achieve musical respectability.

I confess the First Piano Concerto has always left me rather in the negative camp myself, filled as it is with an overabundance of youthful enthusiasm and outright pomposity. Be that as it may, Andsnes doesn't grandstand it, and the piece comes off more eloquently than usual. EMI's sound here is clearly focused and extremely dynamic, the piano appearing a touch bright at times but never distracting, and the stereo image favoring the left side of the stage just a tad.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 came into being as the result of Rachmaninov's consultations with a pioneer in the field of autosuggestion, hypnotism, after the initial failure of his First Symphony. The hypnotist told the composer again and again that he would succeed, and succeed he did. His Piano Concerto No. 2 was an instant hit, with the composer himself as soloist in the work's official première. Because each of the three movements contains an ardent, warmhearted, and memorable tune, it still bewitches audiences today. The music's emotional appeal is undeniable, and Andsnes plays it in a full-throated yet sensitive manner that is sure to win it even more friends, the melodies rising higher as the piece goes on.

Although EMI recorded the First Concerto in 2005 without an audience, they chose to record the Second Concerto live in Berlin's Philharmonie, an awkward decision that works against it. Usually, I complain about live recordings being too distantly miked; this one EMI miked too closely. The result is a bigger piano than necessary and an orchestra that sometimes drowns out the solo instrument. I also found occasional audience and orchestral player noises intrusive, especially between movements, and I could have done without the closing applause.

By comparison to other great recordings, Andsnes's rendition of the First Concerto stands up well, sounding almost as good as Byron Janis on Mercury and without the background hiss. But in the Second Concerto, I prefer Van Cliburn on RCA in a performance of refined grandeur and a recording of depth, breadth, and clarity that puts it into a different musical and sonic dimension altogether.


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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.

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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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa