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
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
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
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
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.