Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 (SACD review)

Also, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Werner Haas, piano; Eliahu Inbal, Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. PentaTone Classics 5186 114.

For some time now, the PentaTone label has been marketing multichannel SACD’s. About half of these releases are of newly recorded material and about half PentaTone took from the Philips archives, where Philips originally made them during the short-lived “quadraphonic” era of the early 1970’s. Such is the case with the Rachmaninov disc reviewed here, which Philips recorded in 1974.

It’s hard to divorce the sound of this recording from the music, so much are these Rachmaninov pieces wound up in emotional concerns. The sound is wide, warm, and slightly veiled, with a deep bass at one end but a lack of sparkle at the other. It means that pianist Werner Haas’s performance may sound more romanticized by the audio than by his actual playing. In any case, Haas and Inbal produce a sometimes highly charged, mostly broad, laid-back, and Romantic view of the Concerto; it’s all quite sensitive and charming and easy on the ear. Then, they take a slightly more analytical, if highly virtuosic, view of the Rhapsody, the exception being the popular Eighteenth Variation, which comes off with a sweet passion that is hard to resist. As an aside, Mr. Haas died in a car accident a couple of years after making this album; a tragic loss.

The disc is dual layered, providing a two-channel stereo presentation on one layer, playable on any regular CD player, and a two and four-channel presentation on the other, playable only on an SACD player. I listened to the two-channel SACD layer. Although SACD allows for up to five discrete channels and a subwoofer track, PentaTone engineers decided to preserve the original intent of the old recording in four separate channels only. I find that commendable.

I do object, however, to one of their publicity statements. I quote from the disc’s booklet: “The advantages of multichannel recording and reproduction are self-evident:  the sound is much more natural, the resolution is better and the spatial impression is much more convincing than stereo.” To which I can only say, “Perhaps.” The effect in multichannel can be more natural sounding if the engineers used the rear channels for minor ambience enhancement; but the resolution is dependent upon how well the engineers made the recording in the first place. Or maybe they just have a different definition of resolution than I do. I think of audio resolution as a degree of sharpness; maybe they don’t. This recording, as I said above, does not have the best “resolution” I’ve heard, as a comparison to some several rivals, like Ashkenazy/Previn (Decca) or Cliburn/Reiner (RCA), reveals.

However, the disc does display a splendid warmth and a resonant hall ambience, which go a long way toward helping one associate it with a feeling of being in the audience. As for the “spatial impression” being better than stereo, that, too, may be dependent upon how well the engineers made the recording and how well set up and balanced one’s 5.1 multichannel speakers are. In two-channel, the spatial impression is quite good, but I’m sure that in full multichannel, this particular recording would sound better than I heard it.

I also had a mild objection to the Rhapsody having only four tracks for its twenty-four Variations; it means if you want to go immediately to, say, Variation 18, you have to fast forward or reverse to find the spot. Not convenient. And while we’re at it, I’m not too keen on the standard SACD disc case, either. As you know, it is not like a conventional CD jewel box, and if it breaks, you probably have to send off for a replacement off the Internet. Over the years, for instance, I have received a number of these cases with broken hinges. The back-cover artwork does not fit into a conventional CD jewel case, so it was off to an Internet supplier to replace the broken SACD cases.

I know, complain, complain. Let it suffice to say that if you have an SACD player and a multichannel audio system, the Haas/Inbal disc may be worth your while investigating. For ordinary two-channel stereo playback, I prefer the Ashkenazy or Cliburn discs.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa