Rachmaninoff: Music for Two Pianos (CD review)
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:
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.