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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18 (1901)
The Nine Études-Tableaux Op. 39 (1916/17)
Joyce Hatto (piano)
National Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/René Köhler
Recorded St Mark’s, Croydon, March 1998 (Concerto) and the Concert Artist Studios, September 1999 (The Études Tableaux)


This is the last of the cycle of Joyce Hatto’s Rachmaninov Concerto recordings that I have reviewed on this site. I have admired them all but even then none as much as this one, which has a splendid and sensitive Concerto performance followed by a stunning set of the nine Études-Tableaux. The Concerto opens with quietly grave nobility tinged with an admixture of determined strength. Soon the middle orchestral voicings are being given prominence by Köhler, the predominately cellistic sonority he cultivates here one of apposite depth. Hatto’s unhurried eloquence is extended by her unselfconscious but minutely graded treble and one hears detail often submerged in more generically romanticised performances. She maintains clarity without becoming at all clinical but the clarity is vital in matters of voicing, harmonic pointing and structural and architectural integrity. With her the musical line is unflinchingly honest and direct. Her technique in the slow movement is excellent – her tone beautiful and the rhythmic component tight and precisely calibrated, and there is at all times with Hatto a sense of sure directional pull, tracery allied to motion. Particularly appealing in the orchestral context were the softened string entries. In the finale the architecture is true, the imagination crisp and pleasurable, the rise and fall of the line mirrored with excellent understanding, the sense of tension and romantic release acute. She cultivates atmosphere, it’s undeniable, but never at the expense of the long line. The conclusion mirrors the introduction of the concerto – restrained nobility, with the solo piano subsumed, as it were, into the fabric of the orchestral patina, the work ending in a spirit of triumphant reconciliation and wholeness.

It so happens that Evgeny Kissin has a disc that similarly harnesses the Second Concerto to the Op. 39 Etudes – though he doesn’t play 3, 7 and 8. I listened for points of comparison and distinctive individuality between the young lion, Kissin, and the pianist who first came to prominence in the 1950s. How telling the vision and sensitivity of the older musician, how fallible and heedlessly impetuous the young lion sounds measured against her. In every case Hatto emerges not simply triumphant but magisterial. Her conception, her sound world, her sense of narrative and her powerful individuality are components of a wholeness of understanding of these works. The opening C minor shows the disjunctions between them – he is a touch steely and hard, clearly taking more obviously to heart the injunction Allegro agitato. Hatto is notably quicker, more decisive; more mature both architecturally and tonally. One can hardly deny Kissin his superbly weighted tone in the A minor [no. 2] – it’s truly marvellous but equally it’s put to the service of a rather etiolated tempo and Kissin’s directional sense never matches his tonal beauty. As a result he emerges rather directionless, both melodically and harmonically. Hatto’s greater speed is accompanied by what it’s best to characterise as a vertical sense – harmonic and lyric. Maybe she can’t match Kissin at some moments for sheer concentrated beauty of tone but the music makes infinitely more narrative sense in her hands. She drives powerfully through the F sharp minor Tableau without ever losing rhythmic control and without pressing too viscerally hard. In the B minor [No. 4] which Rachmaninov said was to do with a Fair scene, one can admire Kissin’s golden halo of sound – but also note that it blunts the energy and decisiveness of the music. But both he and Hatto are good here at the joviality and teem of the music. In the Appassionato of No. 5 in E flat minor she is again quicker, more glinting and also more inward with great weight of left hand tone through which she never forces. She is not as obviously romanticised as Kissin but our narrative-pictorial sense is far more vividly engaged by her performance. And so with the Little Red Riding Hood allegro of No. 6; Kissin is malign and theatrical with powerful ascents and climaxes and his dynamics are powerful. She’s actually far, far wittier (his rather wintry sense of humour is seldom indulged) and impish and actually more tempestuous – also incidentally warmer and considerably more imaginative. She has the wisdom and maturity to know how this Tableau works, as Kissin does not. The lento seventh coalesces pictorial elements with absolute seamlessness and drive and the Allegro moderato [the Eighth in D minor] has rhythmic power in profusion but observes that moderato direction acutely. The lyric curve is never compromised in this excellent performance. She brings a wonderful and enlivening sense of colour and controlled animation to the last Tableau – the chordal flourishes especially. At the same basic tempo as Kissin she manages to etch things more sharply, to conjure a greater sense of meaning – in short to play with a greater ranger of nuance and understanding.

The notes are very good, drawing attention to the pictorialism inherent in the music and also letting slip an intriguing reminiscence of Moiseiwitsch (he claimed to have know the programme of the Op. 33 Tableaux but never let on). As for the performances – memorable.

Jonathan Woolf


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