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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


HOFFNUNG for CHRISTMAS? an ideal Christmas present for yourself or your friends.
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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 1
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Libor Pesek
Rec Nov 1987, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn
VIRGIN CLASSICS 7243 5 61976 2 [50.39]


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This reissue has several things to commend it. To begin with, the recording from 1987 remains top-class. It allows subtle details of orchestral and piano textures to be heard with the utmost clarity, while also building to some rich and sumptuous climaxes, as this composer inevitably demands. The performances too are compelling, the conductor and pianist showing a real rapport in delivering this gloriously romantic music. And the coupling is useful, featuring works which are not necessarily paired so often.

In the First Concerto, Vladimir Ashkenazy is the leading competitor, as he is in the Rhapsody too. If anything he is even more exciting a soloist than Pletnev, since his rhythmic attack has that little bit more bite. Where Pletnev scores is in the way he conveys a truly romantic sweep in his performance, setting his stall right from the beginning with an impressive virtuoso gesture which is perhaps as fine as it could be. As the music proceeds, so the ebb and flow of the musical line, with its Russian romantic indulgence, is treated with a sense of rubato that understands the musical style completely. This is a distinguished performance of a work which in fact is not quite the apprentice piece its Opus 1 identification might suggest. Rachmaninov made a thorough revision of the concerto in 1917, shortly before he left Russia, never to return.

Perhaps the most successful creative enterprise of Rachmaninov's final years was the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which he completed in 1934. This an altogether tighter, less indulgent score, which if anything needs an even closer rapport among the performers. Pletnev and Pesek achieve a really compelling flow as the variations succeed one another and the momentum builds. It is Rachmaninov's genius which succeeds in making a single sweep out of so many short units, of course, but the cogency of the performance cannot be denied. Once again it is the subtle shadings which score most highly, rather than the pounding intensity. As if to reinforce that such is their view, the performances make a closing expression of farewell, slowing the pace before the final throwaway gesture. This may not be the definitive performance of a lifetime, but it is hugely enjoyable and has insights galore.

Terry Barfoot


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