Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Scriabin: Etudes. Lang Lang, piano; Yuri Temirkanov, St. Petersburg Philharmonic. Telarc CD-80582.

Whatever faults I might have found with Chinese pianist Lang Lang's 2001 rendition of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto I should probably attribute to the sound of the recording as much as to the artist. Recorded live in August of 2001 at a Proms Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London, the interpretation is at once lively and volcanic, reticent and withdrawn. Certainly, Lang Lang is a pianist of contrasting temperaments, and he displays it in abundance in this performance, for good or for bad. Personally, I found the performance from both Lang and the orchestra somewhat underpowered compared to the best I've heard, including the composer's mono rendition; but I suspect Lang's fans will find it just right.

As to the performance more specifically, Lang begins it in a relatively staid, reserved manner, and he doesn't begin to allow it to come alive until the final moments of the first movement and then the concluding movement. He executes the slow, second movement Adagio beautifully, however, from beginning to end, and by the time he finishes the entire concerto, things bode well for the Scriabin Etudes and the little Chinese folk song that follow.

Lang Lang
The thing is, I've never been keen on live performances, and this disc reminded me why. Audience noises in the concerto constantly intrude upon the serenity of the quieter passages, and then the sound engineers subject us to a burst of applause at the end. Additionally, the piano's image seems sometimes small and distant, sometimes large, wide, and close, with little rhyme or reason as to why. The orchestra often appears soft or muted, to the point you'd think it had disappeared entirely, when suddenly it bursts forth with a strong, dynamic force, making you wonder where it had been all along. Now, understand, I'm all for a wide dynamic range, as long it sounds natural, the way one might hear it at a real, live event, not from a recorded one. Ironically, for a live recording, this one didn't sound to me "live" at all except for the audience noise.

Telarc recorded the Etudes in a studio, and they come off much better than the Rachmaninov in almost every way. Most important, the sound is not only quieter but seems better balanced than in the Rachmaninov concerto. Oh, yes, and then there's Telarc's booklet insert, which is one of those foldout affairs that opens up to nearly two feet across your lap, making reading it a chore.

I've never considered it my job to tell people what to buy, only to provide my reactions to recordings; still, I have to admit that if I were a first-time buyer looking for a stereo version of the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto, I'd stick to the tried-and-true recordings from Martha Argerich (Philips), Vladimir Horowitz (RCA), Byron Janis (Mercury), Leif Ove Andsnes (EMI), Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca), and if you don't mind monaural sound, the composer's own authoritative version (RCA).

JJP

To listen to a few brief excerpts 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