Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 2 & 3 (CD review)

Stewart Goodyear, piano; Heiko Mathias Forster, Czech National Symphony. Steinway & Sons 30047.

There was a time--and not too long ago--that many concert pianists shied away from playing the Rachmaninov concertos, especially No. 3, because of their difficulty. Then there was also a time when record companies shied away from releasing both Nos. 2 and 3 on the same disc because the popularity of the pieces was such that they knew they could sell two albums if they issued them separately. Times change.

The relatively young Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear provides both of Rachmaninov's well-loved concertos with Heiko Mathias Forster and the Czech National Symphony on a Steinway & Sons CD. But this shouldn't surprise anyone; Goodyear's last time out, he gave us both the Tchaikovsky and Grieg concertos on a single disc. You can't say Goodyear shies away from anything.

For those of you who don't know him, Stewart Goodyear began his studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, Canada, received a B.A. from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and completed an M.A. at the Juilliard School of Music. He now calls New York his home and performs with the major orchestras of the world, including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. As one of the hottest new pianists around, he is very good.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) premiered his Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 in 1901 after the composer underwent hypnotherapy. It seems the failure of his First Symphony so shook him that he feared he'd never write another note of music, so decided he'd try anything. The hypnotherapy apparently worked because the Concerto No. 2 became an immediate success.

Goodyear plays with a good deal of heart, which is exactly what Rachmaninov needs, particularly the Second Concerto. There's a fine lyrical sweep to Goodyear's interpretation, without exaggerating rubato or contrasts, and his articulation remains refreshingly clear and clean. Moreover, the  Czech National Symphony play with great assurance, always welcome when one considers that the Rachmaninov concertos rely a good deal on the orchestra for long stretches.

The pianist's handling of the central Adagio flows along peacefully, with no undue jolts or jitters. And in the finale we get a properly robust and Romantic projection of Rachmaninov's sentiment. Yet Goodyear eschews any overt sentimentality, presenting the music directly and cogently.

By the time Rachmaninov wrote the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor in 1909, it seemed like a continuation of the Second Concerto. The composer had apparently found his voice. He said he wanted the first movement to "sing," and so it does, in a soaring, graceful manner. The music is a little more serious and demanding than the Second Concerto, and even though Goodyear has his hands full, to be sure, he comes out relatively unscathed.

Stewart Goodyear
Still, as I say, with the Third Concerto we enter a more dazzling (and longer and more complex) musical world, the piano showing off the soloist's dexterity at the keyboard more so than the Second does. There is no question that Goodyear is up to the task, his finger work impressive in playing the work complete. Nevertheless, I never felt quite as thrilled with his performance as I have with those of several other pianists, most notably Martha Argerich and Vladimir Horowitz. Goodyear's reading seems more subdued, more cerebral, and less explosive. Not that there is anything wrong with this; it's surely a valid approach. It's just that I expected the pianist to uplift and inspire me more than he did.

The question one must ask of any new recording of an old favorite is, surely, Is it any better or any different than existing, competing albums? Does the new recording provide a better performance than those that preceded it, or is the sound any better? In this case, not really. While these are certainly good interpretations from Goodyear in reasonably good sound from Steinway & Sons, unless one is simply an avid collector of all things Rachmaninov, I'd have to recommend the first-time buyer also consider the alternatives in this repertoire: Argerich, Horowitz, Cliburn, Ashkenazy, Janis, Wild, and the like, as well as Rachmaninov himself if one doesn't mind monaural sound.

Producer Keith Horner and engineer Jan Kotzmann recorded the concertos at CNSO Studio No. 1, Prague, Czech Republic in October 2014. The piano sounds fine, if a little too wide compared to the orchestral contribution. In fact, the piano sounds as though it's as broad across as the orchestra is, which is not exactly how a piano would appear in a real setting. But this is a mere quibble; the sound generally seems pretty good, warm and smooth. Except for the rather large effect of the piano, it would all be most natural and lifelike. As to the piano sound itself, it, too, is fairly warm and natural, yet with decent definition and a modest impact. Perhaps a greater degree of depth and dimensionality would have helped the aural presentation as well, I don't know. In any case, the modest ambient bloom of the hall further helps make the sound easy on the ears. If the perspective doesn't bother you, you might enjoy it.


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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa