Rachmaninoff: Music for Two Pianos (CD review)

Suites for Two Pianos; Symphonic Dances. Natalia Lavrova and Vassily Primakov Piano Duo. LP Classics 1019.

Natalia Lavrova and Vassily Primakov are award-winning, Juilliard-trained concert pianists who formed a partnership in 2010 as the Lavrova Primakov Piano Duo. Moreover, their friendship and musical collaboration also led them to create their own record company, LP Classics, of which the present Rachmaninov recording is, I believe, their third release. As the duo explain it, LP Classics "is committed to unearthing lost historical gems, presenting never-before released recordings, and enriching the discographies of emerging stars of the new generation." I assumed when I heard their previous album that the "LP" stood for Lavrova-Primakov and not simply as in the old days "long-playing." Maybe, I surmised, we could also think of "LP" as "lovely performances," and certainly such a description continues to fit their new Rachmaninov release.

When I reviewed the duo's last album, among the things I praised about them was the thoughtful perception and insightful response that made their interaction so good; their pianistic skills and imposing display of musical gymnastics; their impeccable showmanship; and their total accord with one another's playing. The same applies here to these three selections from Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), the duo sounding quite spectacular at times.

The first item on the program is the Suite No. 1 (Fantasie-Tableaux for Two Pianos), Op. 5, a composition for two pianos that Rachmaninov wrote in 1893 while still a young man. To my knowledge, he never arranged it for orchestra, and it gets only occasional recordings. In the best Romantic tradition of his day, the composer based each of the four movements on parts of poems: the Barcarolle: Allegretto in G minor on a work by Mikhail Lermontov; La nuit... L'amour: Adagio sostenuto in D major ("The night...the love") on a poem by Lord Byron; Les Larmes: Largo di molto, in G minor ("The Tears") on a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev; and Pâques: Allegro maestoso in G minor ("Easter") on a poem by Aleksey Khomyakov.

Starting with the Barcarolle, or "boatman's song," Lavrova and Primakov demonstrate their sensitivity, the notes flowing in smooth, luxuriant harmony. You can almost hear the ripple of the water beneath the gondolier's oar. The duo's treatment of the second-movement love poem is warm, lyrical, and lovely, pure Rachmaninov. The Largo is as delicate as one can imagine, light as a feather on the breeze. Then the duo go out with a finale of imposing proportions, the great bells of the church tower peeling grandly.

Next, we find the Suite No. 2 for two pianos, Op. 17, which Rachmaninov wrote in 1901, just after he recovered from the shock and disappointment of the initial performance of his First Symphony. In the Second Suite he did not try to illustrate poems but wrote it in a customary four-movement arrangement: Introduction: Alla marcia in C major; Valse: Presto in G major; Romance: Andantino in A flat major; and Tarantelle: Presto in C minor. In the Second Suite we get a more-mature, more adventurous work from the composer, and Lavrova and Primakov explore it with an appropriate impetuosity. The results are quite lively in the opening two movements, equally charming and graceful in the third segment, and most exciting in the concluding Tarantelle.

The last item and for me the highlight of the album is Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, which he wrote for two pianos in 1940, at the same time arranging it in its more-popular orchestral version. In this regard, it may remind one of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, also written for piano but more famous in its orchestral arrangement. The composer premiered the piano rendition at a Hollywood party in which Vladimir Horowitz and he played it together. Don't you wish you were at that party?

Anyway, maybe because I'm so familiar with the orchestral arrangement, I wasn't sure what to expect from this first-time listening to the two-piano version. But Lavrova and Primakov bring to it such a lusty zeal, it's hard to resist. No, two pianos don't have the sheer power of a full symphony orchestra, yet as the piece goes on the duo manage to make one almost forget that there even is an orchestral version. Whether it's a quiet, lingering passage or a full-throated attack, Lavrova and Primakov handle it with the utmost refinement, respect, enthusiasm, virtuosity, and bravura. I found it thoroughly delightful and engrossing and couldn't help thinking as I listened that Rachmaninov and Horowitz would find it likewise.

If I have any criticism of the product at all, it isn't about the music or the performances. Instead, it's about the omission of an accompanying booklet of notes. OK, it's probably a cost-saving measure, I understand. Nevertheless, if that's the case, how to explain the three-paneled, glossy laminated, Digipak-type container the disc comes in? While the packaging certainly looks handsome, it's surely not cheap. Ah, well, I quibble.

Producer and engineer Alexey Gorokholinsky recorded the album in Stratton, Vermont, October 2013. The sound has a sweet, airy quality about it, clear but mildly resonant, too, providing a complementary sonic experience. Given that there are two pianos involved, you'd expect to worry about an exaggerated stage width, but not so. The two pianos appear at a moderate distance, centered between the speakers quite realistically. Transient response, dynamics, frequency range, and, as I say, acoustic ambience are exemplary, the sound never bright or forward or veiled but just right for easy, natural listening.


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

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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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa