Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 (SACD review)

Also, Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2. Denis Matsuev, piano; Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra. Mariinsky Label SACD MAR0599.

The good news is that Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, and the Russian Mariinsky Orchestra (formerly the Kirov Orchestra) put in good, red-blooded Russian performances of good, red-blooded Russian music.

The bad news (for me) is that the Mariinsky Label recorded the music live, which I almost never find as natural sounding as music recorded without an audience where the engineers are free to place their microphones in the most ideal spots for realistic playback in the home. Of course, I understand the need for most orchestras these days to record live, what with the high cost of studio recordings. In essence, the record companies let the audience subsidize the expense. But I also understand that many conductors simply prefer to record live, feeling it best captures the feeling and spirit of the moment. Whatever, I lament the passing of really good studio jobs.

Denis Matsuev came to prominence when at an early age he won the eleventh International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, a competition that began in 1958 and has been held every four years since. This competition has produced quite a few prominent winners, beginning with the first winner, American Van Cliburn, and continuing with Vladimir Ashkenazy, John Ogdon, John Lill, Andrei Gavrilov, Mikhail Pletnev, Barry Douglas, Daniil Trifonov, and many more. Matsuev's win in 1998 lead to a successful career in concert halls around the world.

Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) premiered his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 in 1901 after he had undergone hypnotherapy. The failure of his First Symphony apparently so disturbed him that he feared he'd never write another note of music, so he decided he'd try anything. The hypnotherapy seemed to do the trick as the Concerto No. 2 became an immediate success.

Matsuev and Gergiev handle the opening movement in appropriately weighty, vociferous style, perhaps emphasizing the big emotional outbursts over the more sweepingly lyrical, rhapsodic ones. In the serene second movement, Matsuev and company tend to rush headlong with seemingly little interest in conveying any dreamlike qualities. Certainly, the pianist displays a great deal of virtuosity, but it's sometimes at the expense of the music's feeling. Then comes that glorious finale, where Rachmaninov reintroduces the familiar themes he played with in the previous two movements. Here, Matsuev's tendency toward skillful technique over delicate sensitivity pays off, and he and his fellow musicians provide an appealingly brawny conclusion to the work.

Dennis Matsuev
For a coupling, Matsuev (or Gergiev or the producer or whomever) chose the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninov's fellow Russian contemporary, composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Although Prokofiev completed the score in 1913, it was lost in the Russian Revolution, and he had to rewrite it in 1923. When he finished it (again), he claimed it was "so completely rewritten that it might almost be considered No. 4." At its premiere in 1924, some audience members loved it, while others found it too raucous, too grating, too modern. "The cats on the roof make better music!" said one concertgoer.

Whatever audiences thought about the piece almost a hundred years ago, today's audiences have pretty much come to accept the music as a piece of the standard classical repertoire. Moreover, the music seems to fit Matsuev's style of playing even more than the Rachmaninov. The pianist gets plenty of chances to show off his immense talents, and he can be dazzling (that little second-movement Scherzo is a blast, and the sardonic Intermezzo comes off splendidly). It's a solid, sensible approach all the way around, with no cats on the roof.

Producer, engineer, and editor Vladimir Ryabenko recorded the concertos live at the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia in June 2016. He did so in DSD (Direct Stream Digital) for playback in hybrid SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) multichannel and two-channel stereo. As usual, I listened in two-channel SACD.

As we might expect from a live recording, it sounds fairly close up, and the orchestra players seem all on the same plane (with little dimensionality). The piano sounds good, though, rich and warm, if a little too wide across the stage. Unfortunately, the orchestral forces tend to fog over a bit and appear both congested and constricted in louder passages. I'm not sure if listening in multichannel rather than two-channel would help rectify this situation. Nevertheless, the bulk of the audio is fine, with decent dynamics and a reasonably extended frequency response.

Oh, and for those of you worried about audience noise at this live recording, there is none. Backgrounds are dead quiet, and the engineer has thankfully edited out any obtrusive applause.


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

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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