Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos. 3 & 4 (CD review)

Leif Ove Andsnes, piano; Antonio Pappano, London Symphony Orchestra. EMI 50999 6 40516 2.

After the success of his Second Piano Concerto, Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) felt more confident in his musical abilities and secured a permanent place in the annals of great Russian composers. As for the remarkable Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, he also seems to have established a permanent place for himself in the hearts and minds of music lovers everywhere. Following up his album of Rachmaninov's first two piano concertos, this latest album of the composer's third and fourth concertos shows him at his absolute best.

In the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909), Andsnes, as always, plays with a fine sensitivity, all the more striking given the brawny, bravura nature of the piece, especially the concerto's opening Allegro. The pianist takes the broad, sweeping, lyrical passages with a sure Romantic hand, yet he never lets any obvious sentimentality swamp the work. As we might expect, Andsnes proves adept at managing the transitions between power and delicacy the movement demands. He plays commandingly, with an ultrasmooth, effortless style.

The mercurial Intermezzo couldn't be lovelier or more stirring, rising to an appropriately impassioned pitch as it goes along. Here, Pappano and the LSO provide a close-knit support, all the players rising to a fevered crescendo as the music enters seamlessly into the Finale. One can understand after hearing so masterful a performance as this one why the Third Concerto is not for the pianist who is faint of heart. Indeed, the virtuoso pianist Josef Hofmann, himself daunted by the work, once famously remarked of Rachmaninov that in order to play it, the composer must have had "fingers of steel and a heart of gold." Andsnes has both.

The Piano Concerto No. 4 (premiered in 1927 and revised in 1941, the revised version played here) was a change of pace for Rachmaninov. It reflects a new, more-modern conciseness of form for the composer and includes traces of blues and jazz (thank you, Mr. Gershwin). It's only a little over half the length of the mighty Third Concerto, and it hasn't as much luxuriant Russian flair or as many grand, flowing melodies as its bigger brother. As is his wont, Andsnes performs it with grace, refinement, and strength, overall conjuring up a rousing statement of the piece.

As an aside, the booklet contains two pictures of Mr. Andsnes, one on the front and another on the back, both of them showing a grim and determined countenance. He looks like one of those surly fashion models who never smiles. I'm not sure what idea the album's producers were trying to convey: that Andsnes is a serious, contemplative guy and taking this material in deadly earnest? If so, it's in direct contrast to the sheer pleasure and excitement he brings to this music.

Anyway, unlike Andsnes's most-recent account of the Second Concerto, which EMI recorded live with the Berlin Philharmonic several years earlier, or his Third Concerto recorded live with the Oslo Philharmonic a number of years before that, EMI recorded these latest, 2009-2010 performances of the Third and Fourth Concertos in their No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, where they have made so many celebrated recordings over the decades. The engineers balance the piano and orchestra exceptionally well and capture a crisp, clean piano sound in the process. The orchestral accompaniment, well spread out behind the soloist, could be a bit more transparent, yet the warm, full acoustic nicely complements the overt Romanticism of the proceedings. While the orchestral depth is also only moderate, it's the piano that counts, and it shines radiantly in the foreground. Oh, and I should add that the wide dynamic range and huge impact help greatly, too, in conveying the authority of both concertos.

Needless to say, this album impressed me markedly, and one must now consider it alongside several other fine recordings as among the best of the breed: Argerich/Chailly (Philips), Horowitz/Ormandy (RCA), Ashkenazy/Previn (Decca), and Janis/Dorati (Mercury) in No. 3 and Michelangeli/Gracis (EMI) in No. 4. That's pretty rarefied atmosphere, indeed.


1 comment:

  1. Listen to Yevgeny Sudbin's recording of the complete original version of the 4th Concerto. Worth getting to know. I found Andsnes' playing on this disc a bit heavy-handed at time, and I'm a big fan of his.


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