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Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto “no.5” (Symphony no.2 in E minor, op.27, arranged as a piano concerto by Alexander Warenberg) (2007) [42:24] (((i) Largo – allegro moderato [18:56] (ii) Adagio – molto allegro [13:15] (iii) Allegro vivace [10:05]))
Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy (piano)
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra/Theodor Kuchar
rec. Concert Hall, Ostrava, Czech Republic, 26-28 June 2007


Experience Classicsonline

Listening to this disc is rather like eating an oyster – you’ll either love the experience or you’ll hate it.

First, let’s get clear what this hitherto unknown “fifth piano concerto” isn’t. It’s not an exercise on the lines of, for example, Semyon Bogatyriev’s reconstruction of Tchaikovsky’s abandoned “seventh symphony”. In that case, we know that, until he gave up on it in 1892, the composer definitely intended there to be such a symphony and that, with greater or lesser degrees of certainty, the surviving materials used by Bogatyriev recreated something that Tchaikovsky himself might, indeed, have gone on to produce. 

With regard to this new recording, on the other hand, there is not a scrap of evidence that Rachmaninoff ever thought of using the music of his most popular symphony as the basis of a piano concerto and its origins lie entirely in the imagination of one man. In the comprehensive booklet notes, Pieter van Winkel describes how, at Christmas 2000, “listening to the symphony, I heard, I kept fancying, a piano. What a pity – such beautiful music but not for the piano! I have nothing against the score as such … Yet … yet isn’t something missing? Listening to it with other ears, I imagined what it would be like with a concert-grand – and I thought, goodness, this could really work.”. 

Enter at that point van Winkel’s old piano teacher, “leonine and bearded” - as the booklet graphically but gratuitously informs us - Soviet émigré Alexander Warenberg, who, forced to abandon public performing by an arm injury, now works mainly as a composer and arranger for films and television. Apart from their prior acquaintance, one can see why van Winkel – recalling, quite possibly, the superbly effective use of Rachmaninoff’s second concerto in the classic David Lean movie Brief Encounter – might well have turned to such a man to rearrange the lushly romantic second symphony as a concertante work.

As he tells us in the booklet notes, in taking up his friend van Winkel’s idea Warenberg eschewed the virtuoso - one is tempted to say “leonine” - approach to Rachmaninoff that spotlights the piano part at the expense of the orchestra. “There’s neither the first or second priority”, he argues, “just first and first. A dialogue between the … equal partners. Give and take.”. 

With that musically egalitarian approach in mind, Warenberg went ahead with his revisions, helped, he tells us, by conceiving the new piece - for no particular reason that I can understand - as a three act/movement “kind of opera” based on the story of Ruslan and Ludmila. Thus, he excised more than four-fifths of the symphony’s scherzo and, by amalgamating the remainder with material from the adagio, created a new middle movement. About a third of the symphony’s finale was also jettisoned so as to create a tighter and more effectively emotional climax to the concerto’s finale. 

As well as modifying what he estimates as about 40% of Rachmaninoff’s original orchestration, Warenberg also changed many of the score’s harmonies (“I felt it necessary to improve the sound and balance”) and, indeed, occasionally added – though both briefly and generally sympathetically – some entirely original material. 

Interestingly enough, the booklet notes imply that soloist Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy sees the whole project rather differently. He chooses to distance the new concerto further from the original Rachmaninoff, believing that it will prove most convincing to those listeners without any prior knowledge at all of the symphony. His conception is of “a new piano concerto, with so much of the universe of Rachmaninoff’s genius in it, plus a lot of effective, brilliant new Warenberg ‘inventions’… A ‘Warenberg concerto’ that’s neither Rachmaninoff concerto nor Rachmaninoff symphony” [my emphases]. 

Even though I’m personally inclined to think that he is somewhat misguided on that particular point, Schmitt-Leonardy gives a spirited and entirely convincing performance that is very much of the “equal partners” school. He is clearly entirely at home with the material and all its much-loved characteristics – displaying glittering finger-work, ruminative introspection, high drama and sweeping romanticism as required. 

The Ostrava-based Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra – more usually associated with contemporary music – also plays with verve and élan, particularly relishing those moments where some striking new element of orchestration, such as the addition of chimes towards the end of the last movement, takes their fancy. Conductor Theodore Kuchar – well known for his recordings with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine on the Naxos and Marco Polo labels – throws himself into the whole enterprise with equal enthusiasm and considerable expertise. 

Given that this is the only recording of the work to date, comparisons are impossible – and if, as I suspect, the “fifth piano concerto” becomes a mere curiosity, that is likely to remain the case. Nonetheless, the very personal involvement of the (re)creators of the score makes it difficult to see how this performance could be any more authentic.

For recordings of any “new” composition, booklet notes are particularly important and those here – with specific and most interesting contributions from Pieter van Winkel, Alexander Warenberg and Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy, as well as more general material – are first class.

My only quibble is, in fact, the CD’s overall running time of less than 43 minutes, though it is, admittedly, somewhat difficult to imagine what might have been appropriately included to fill out the disc to a more acceptable duration.

By the way, just in case you’re wondering … I hate oysters – but I loved this disc!

Rob Maynard


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