Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 4 (CD review)

Also, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Simon Trpceski, piano; Vasily Petrenko, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Avie AV2191.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 1, in 1891, while he was still a teenage student at the Moscow Conservatoire. But he didn't revise it in the form we know today until 1917, well after audiences grew to love his Second and Third Concertos. Consequently, it never did match the popularity of the other works, perhaps rightly so, too, as it is a rather youthful piece, full of helter-skelter ideas. Apparently, the young Rachmaninov tried to put everything into it but the kitchen sink.

In any case, with pianist Simon Trpceski and conductor Vasily Petrenko (who earlier gave us the two middle concertos) the First Concerto is dreamy when it needs to be dreamy, powerful, dramatic, sentimental, and sensitive when it needs to be powerful, dramatic, sentimental and sensitive. Trpceski and Petrenko play as one, with the pianist providing the substance and the conductor and orchestra filling in the accompaniment as though a part of the piano. In other words, they work well together.

By the time Rachmaninov wrote the Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 40, in 1926, he was an established superstar pianist and composer. Audiences expected everything from him to be of the caliber of his previous work, particularly the Second and Third Piano Concertos and the Second Symphony. The Fourth Piano Concerto didn't live up; never has. Which is not to say there aren't some good, even wonderful things in it, which Trpceski and Petrenko are more than happy to share. For instance, there is the clearly modern introduction, the sometimes disjointed but entirely intoxicating rhythms, and, of course, the occasional but unmistakable elements of jazzy American blues, no doubt the influence of Rachmaninov having heard George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue the year before.

Nevertheless, despite the disappointments of the First and Fourth Piano Concertos, the composer was not out of the ball game. In 1934 he wrote his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, based on Niccolo Paganini's Caprice No. 24, and it has won over listeners ever since with its interplay of virtuosic piano parts and a dark Dies Irae chant.

Again, the pianist and conductor are at one, the piano hopping, skipping, and jumping around the Paganini variations, and both the piano and the orchestra countering with the funeral tune. Trpceski displays his dazzling finger work and Petrenko his unfailingly sympathetic support to produce a remarkably moving new interpretation of the score.

Avie recorded the performances at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, England, in 2009 (Rhapsody), 2010 (Concerto No. 1), and 2011 (Concerto No. 4). In each case, the sound is somewhat close, with a broad stereo spread and a relatively clean piano tone but not the best midrange transparency or orchestral depth. However, an exceptionally wide dynamic range and a strong impact help make up for any minor drawbacks. Besides, the size and warmth of the sonics tend to complement the Romantic nature of the music.


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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.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa