Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 (CD review)

Also, Paganini Rhapsody. Lang Lang, piano; Valery Gergiev, Orchestra of the Marinsky Theatre. DG B0003902-02.

Yet another live recording. Ho-hum. I’m not sure why DG, EMI, and other major record companies have been so keen these past ten or more years on recording so many performances before a live audience, but it isn’t helping the sonics of the recordings any. I suppose it’s a matter of economics, in essence the audience helping subsidize the cost of the production. Well, at least DG spare us any applause here.

Popular virtuoso pianist Lang Lang shows a mature if largely lackluster approach to Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, appropriately focusing his attention on the work’s long sigh of a second movement rather than on the portentous introduction or the somewhat romanticized finale. Still, Lang Lang’s clearly conservative approach to the score tends to diminish some of the work’s appeal.

Fortunately, the pianist more amply displays his virtuoso technique in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, where his fingers dazzle and the keyboard lights up, if sometimes in a fairly heavy-handed, even wayward, fashion. The biggest “however,” though, is that I don’t believe these performances match any of the over half a dozen classic interpretations I had on hand from Janis, Rubinstein, Cliburn, Ashkenazy, Argerich, Wild, Horowitz, and others, despite how skillful Lang Lang may appear. Needless to say, the eighteenth Paganini variation, the Andante Cantabile, still sounds ravishing, no matter who’s playing it.

Still, there is that nagging issue of the sonics because the live recording never seems to come to life. It’s more than a bit soft and vague, the instruments often seeming too recessed compared to the piano, which, miked closely, sometimes looms in the foreground twenty feet wide. Nor is the perception of depth too impressive. Fortunately, the dynamics and bass are OK, if not quite as solid as I’d like. A quick listen to Rubinstein doing the Paganini Variations close to fifty years earlier on an RCA Living Stereo disc makes one wonder just how far we’ve advanced in sound recording, if at all.

JJP

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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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa