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.
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.
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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