> RACHMANINOV Piano Concerti Brilliant Classics 6214 [TH]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873 – 1943)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op.1*
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op.18**
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op.30***
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op.40***
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43**

* John Lill (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Tadaaki Otaka (conductor)
** Jose Luis Prats (piano), Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra, Enrique Batiz (conductor)
*** Nikolai Lugansky (piano), State Academy Symphony Orchestra of Russia, Ivan Shpiller (conductor)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 6214 [2 discs; 75:03; 78:34; super-budget , DDD]


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Having been less than kind to a similar Brilliant Classics reissue of the Saint-Saens concertos in these columns, I am pleased to report a much more positive state of affairs here. For a start, you get all you need on two well-filled discs at super-budget price, and although the packaging again doesn’t include any sort of information or booklet, the performances are all digital and of pretty recent provenance. In fact, I would say at the outset that the only real problem for this set will be the vast amount of competition, some of it just as cheap.

Let me declare my overall favourite straightaway, John Lill’s highly poetic and intelligent account of the youthful Concerto No.1, which in his capable hands emerges as far more than a Tchaikovskian war-horse. The bravura is all there, but is balanced against the darker, more introspective moments for which Rachmaninov is justly famous. Try the finale, which is always tricky to bring off, its barnstorming opening giving way to a typically lush but slightly melancholy ‘big tune’ (around 2"15’ in on this recording); Otaka and the BBC NOW lend sensitive support to Lill’s handling of this glorious episode, and although one critic on its first release were worried that the pianist sounded "too hard…and Lisztian (!)…", I have no problem at all with this performance.

Of course, it has to be said that other recordings are equally successful both here and in the other works; my own personal benchmarks have always been Ashkenazy (with either Previn on a cheap Decca Double or Haitink at full-price) and Earl Wild and Horenstein on mid-price Chandos. In fact Wild’s virtuosity is probably the nearest we get to the ‘real’ thing (ie. Rachmaninov himself) in modern stereo, and his phenomenal pianism is alone worth the modest Chandos price.

Moving onto what might be called the most ‘authentic’ performances here, Lugansky and the Moscow forces, we have something of a curate’s egg. The piano playing is truly outstanding, with the young Russian giving the sort of red-blooded readings that have one thinking of a young Richter, Gilels or from our own time, Kissin or Pletnev. In the massive Third Concerto, he plays the first movement cadenza that Rachmaninov himself favoured, rather than the slightly overblown (though undeniably exciting) alternative. This is altogether outstanding Soviet pianism, and it is a pity that the accompaniment is not to the same standard. True, there is the authentic-sounding vibrato on the horn which we’re all used to by now, but this becomes almost a wobble in the big tune of the finale, and the strings do not produce as rich or opulent a tone as they used to in the Svetlanov days. The recording (which seems to be a Vanguard original) is not as full-bodied or well balanced as Lill’s Nimbus source, but doesn’t detract from Lugansky’s playing, which is just as thrilling in the much maligned Fourth Concerto.

The famous Second Concerto and Paganini Rhapsody are entrusted to Latin American forces, and in some ways the same criticisms apply. I’ve always found Enrique Batiz’s recordings worth hearing (I still enjoy a thrilling Copland disc from this team), and he certainly whips up excitement from his Mexico forces; try the coda to the finale of the concerto, where the orchestra are playing for their corporate lives! Yes, there are moments of sour intonation and slightly scrappy ensemble (the big eighteenth variation of the Rhapsody suffers a little in this respect) but overall the orchestral playing is more enjoyable than the Russian band. As for the solo playing, the young Jose Luis Prats is more than up to the task, and seems to revel in Batiz’s relatively swift tempos, which allow a no-nonsense feel to pervade.

I doubt if any serious collector (or indeed remotely keen music lover) will be without recordings of these works. In addition to those mentioned above, there are excellent budget alternatives from Bernd Glemser on Naxos, Martino Tirimo on CFP and Zoltan Kocsis on Philips, as well as numerous historical accounts including, of course, the composer himself, most recently re-mastered on Naxos. But if you come across the present set in one of the high street chains (I have spotted Brilliant Classics for as little as £1.99 a disc) or fancy an alternative to what you have, I can recommend it with the slight reservations mentioned (I must add to those an absurdly short gap between tracks, which was also an irritation on the Saint-Saens set). Well worth considering if cost is a key factor.
Tony Haywood


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