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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901)
Barry Douglas (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
Rec. 1992, London
Piano Concerto No. 3 (1908)
Byron Janis (piano)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
Rec. December 1958, Boston
BMG RCA RED SEAL 82876 55269-2 [71.20]


These two oft-recorded concertos make a strong pairing, given that any pianist-orchestra combination with the artistic wherewithal to tackle them is practically bound to have significant things to say. So it proves here, not least because the ‘historical’ performance from Byron Janis and the Boston Symphony Orchestra sounds so well in this recent transfer.

At the time of the performance Janis was still a young man, not yet thirty, and Munch was one of the world’s top conductors. Their recording of this great concerto proved another highlight in a distinguished and enduring discography, recorded in the glowing acoustic of Symphony Hall.

The tempi Janis adopts in the outer movements are on the brisk side; but no matter, since he brings them off with such panache. The music, moreover, is strong enough to accommodate such an approach, and in any case there is a long-term vision at work, with the contrasted second subject phrased very much in context. Munch too plays his part in controlling appropriate orchestral shadings and attention to the details of phrasing.

The other movements are no less successful, with the finale particularly exciting in its rhythmic incisiveness and sheer élan. Only the slight lack of richness and sophistication in the recorded orchestral sound reveals this as a recording of an earlier generation. Janis was a major talent and this performance serves his reputation well.

Barry Douglas too, though an artist of a later (the present) generation, is a distinguished pianist with a reputation that goes before him. From the opening piano chords the performance is compelling, based upon an impressive technique that commands both the keyboard and the score. The tempi are successfully judged, so too the orchestral textures in a concerto that is more subtle in these matters than is commonly supposed. In fact the slow movement is a gem, full of perceptive touches and details. At first the finale seems to sweep all before it; but of course the music has more than the one dimension, and includes one of the composer’s best tunes. Tilson Thomas and Douglas milk this for all it is worth, without resorting to bathos. Therefore when the main agenda and direction are resumed, the effect achieved is compelling.

With good recorded sound this performance makes a worthy companion to the Boston Piano Concerto No. 3 with Janis. The accompanying documentation is rather generalised, and is best described as adequate rather than inspired.

Terry Barfoot

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