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NAXOS 6.110013 SACD
Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS £8.50

NAXOS 5.110013
Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS £8.50

There does not appear to be a standard priced CD issue of this recording

Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873 - 1943)
Piano Concerto #2 in c, Op 18 (1901) [32.38]
Piano Concerto #3 in d, Op 30 (1909) [40.55]
Konstantin Scherbakov, piano
Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
Recorded in Studio 5, State Recording House, Moscow, Russia, 25 May 2002
CD tracks in 2.0 stereo. SACD tracks in 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound.
DSD Hybrid SACD playable on CD players and SACD players
NAXOS 6.110013 [73.33]
Discrete 5.1 surround sound at 48kHz 24Bit, Dolby 5.1 (AC-3), and DTS 5.1.
DVD-Audio playable on all DVD players & DVD-audio players.

NAXOS 5.110013 [73.33]


Comparison Recordings:
Ashkenazy, Moscow PO/Kondrashin (#2)/Fistoulari, LPO (#3) (96/24 remastering, 44/16 down-sampled pressing) Decca Legends 289 466 375-2

Here we have in performance by established artists two of the most popular piano concertos presented in an embarrassment of sonic richesóthe same recording in 6 formats (8 if we allow that you can listen to the two track versions with, or without, your Dolby digital surround sound decoder) in normal and high resolution, stereo and surround sound, and all of them at bargain prices. Is there any reason we should not all just run right out and buy one or the other of these issues? And if not, which of the two should it be?

First, the performance. Elsewhere I have praised Yablonskyís conducting abilities higher than some of my MusicWeb colleagues feel is warranted. Many recordings of varied repertoire demonstrate that Scherbakovís brilliant piano technique and musicianship leave nothing to be desired. In terms of technical ability and bravura showmanship, he is possibly the finest pianist before the public today. He is a mature and fully capable artist so we know that however he plays these works it is exactly as he thinks they should go, and while thatís not quite the way Ashkenazy thinks they should go, it may be an equally valid approach.

Or it may not. In the early bars of the Second Concerto Rachmaninov is writing keyboard continuo under the string melody, not unlike the Baroque orchestral use of the harpsichord, and we know that Rachmaninovís piano technique was crisp and incisive. I believe that what Rachmaninov wanted here was even, clear, crisp texture. Scherbakov shapes these arpeggios a little too much to my taste; I feel he should play them more like chamber music where the piano is accompanying by laying a harmonic foundation and letting the strings do the singing.

To play the Second Concerto and other early Rachmaninov requires a sense of innocence combined with adolescent earnestness. I realise Rachmaninov was 28 in 1901, a little old for an adolescent, but he was, if anybody ever was, a case of arrested development. I hear this orchestra, who recently did a terrific Alexander Nevsky, having difficulty achieving innocence or adolescence; perhaps they are just tired of the music, or perhaps modern Russia, like 11th century Russia, is just too dangerous a place to be innocent. So, to compensate, the "surging" melodies surge a little too much sometimes. It was Tchaikovsky who advised conductors to play his music as though it were Mozart, that is, donít overdo the Romantic stuff. I donít recall Rachmaninov ever saying that, but the Romantic stuff can be overdone, and I think it is here. At one point the trumpet soloist sounds like heís been brought up on Aaron Copland and is impatient to get to his other job playing at a Moscow night club in the dance band. To my taste I cannot give this performance first place, especially when there are perfect ones to be had. However, these are very subtle issues of style, and there will probably be many who will think this is the best version ever done, so I can only urge caution, especially if, like me, you like your Rachmaninov crisp.

But the Third Concerto is an entirely different animal. By now Rachmaninov has definitely lost his innocence. Here the artists come into their own; by the end of the first movement cadenza of the Third Concerto Scherbakov had grabbed my by the throat and wrung me out, and left me on my feet cheering. Here the slightly exaggerated virtuosity only builds on the drama, and a little more "surging" in the melodies helps warm a concerto that some find a little cool, a little intimidating. I can recommend this as at least as fine a performance as Iíve ever heard.

See http://www.musicweb-international.com/SACD/SACD.htm for a discussion of the characteristics of the various audio formats.

Now, the envelope please: The winner for best overall sound is the DVD-Audio 5.1 tracks. The piano is clearly localised front centre, sound is sweet and rich, dynamic range and frequency range are stunning, and the orchestral climaxes are breathtaking in clarity and impact. Second place goes to the SACD surround tracks with reduced dynamic range. The DTS tracks come in third, followed by the CD tracks on the SACD, then the Dolby encoded DVD tracks. These comparisons were made as far as possible using the same player and speakers, but I also listened to the disk on my bedside system with 5" speakers, where my Emerson portable player had no difficult playing the CD compatible audio tracks on the SACD. The sound on these disks was so good I had to go over and carefully readjust my entire system to do them justice. And it must be noted that DVD players, and even DVD software players for computers, vary noticeably in their playing quality with compatible DVD-Audio music tracks.

If Decca were to release the Ashkenazy performance of this work on a 96kHz DVD-audio, that would possibly be some real competition for this release.

Paul Shoemaker

 



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