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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    


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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 4
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

Concerto for piano and wind instruments
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)

Prometheus: The Poem of Fire*
Alexei Lubimov (piano)
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir*
Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Jukka-Pekka Saraste
Recorded May 1996, Toy Thomson Hall, Toronto
WARNER APEX 0927 43073 2 [68.22]


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An interesting mixture of styles make this a particularly attractive programme. What they have in common is that fundamentally the three works are all piano concertos and, as one might expect, all place great demands on the technique and personality of the pianist. Alexei Lubimov emerges from the challenge with great credit; but on reflection, would he have taken it on in the first place if he was not worthy to do so?

Rachmaninov's Fourth Concerto is the most conventional of these pieces, for the simple reason that it is the only one which uses the normal concerto combination of piano and orchestra. The music does not have quite the compelling sweep of the celebrated Second and Third Concertos, and Rachmaninov himself was aware of that, since he spent the better part of ten years working on it and refining it. But Lubimov and Saraste have the work's measure, and their control of the larger scale issues of construction and direction is exemplary. The recorded sound is good though not outstanding, and there are competitors (notably Vladimir Ashkenazy on Decca) who benefit from a wider and richer sound spectrum.

I particularly enjoyed Lubimov's sensitivity to phrase shaping, which allows the heroic sweeping gestures of the first movement to make their impression without becoming unduly indulgent. The more intimate moments in the slow movement also avoid sounding too much like a parody of 'Three Blind Mice' (always a tricky problem with this piece). In all, then, this can be rated a successful interpretation.

The sour chords which open Stravinsky's Concerto reveal a composer who was creating a very different kind of music at precisely the same time as Rachmaninov was composing his grand and romantic Fourth Concerto. Therefore the priorities of the performance have to be very different, and it is surely more than a matter of just playing the notes. Once the lively tempo gets under way there are occasion when just a little more attack would have brought that touch of incisiveness that makes all the difference in this music. The strengths of the performance lie more in the subtleties of shading and instrumental balances than they do in terms of physical excitement. Again the recording is accurate without having enormous impact.

Scriabin's Prometheus is one of the composer's most grandiose and ambitious projects. He conceived the idea as a gigantic experience ending with a massive tutti chord and a colour light show which resolved to a blinding white light. The composer regarded himself as a mystic visionary, who would reveal new truths to those who followed him (he was a kind of musical Rasputin). His initial idea was that this experience should take place in India; but after a visit to London, he thought that an alternative option might be the Royal Albert Hall.

So to hear the music on CD is several degrees removed from Scriabin's vision. The music clearly requires a big, richly sonorous sound, which it does not quite have in this recording. Perhaps it is for that reason that the performance feels somewhat earthbound, even after the chorus enters. The best approach is to turn up the volume and indulge, but to really believe in this piece you need a lively imagination. As in the Rachmaninov concerto, Ashkenazy's Decca performance of the Scriabin is just a little more vivid.

Terry Barfoot


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