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Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Moments musicaux Op.16 [30:59]
Morceaux de fantasie Op.3 [19:41]
Fragments (1917) [1:42]
Prelude op. posth (1917) [2:07]
Zdes’ khorosho Op.21 No 7 (transcr. Anon) [1:52]
Vocalise Op.34 No 14 (transcr. Koscis) [5:58]
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
Rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk in November 2002, March and August 2004
A 48 kHz/24 bit multi-channel PCM recording
Super Audio CD playable on all CD players
DECCA 475 619-8 [62:45]

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Rachmaninov ... Ashkenazy ... Decca ... words that somehow go together. This team made recordings of piano concertos, symphonies and preludes that are essential to my collection. But that was all quite a long time ago. Life has moved on and, although it seems hard to believe, Ashkenazy is now in his late sixties. If my memory is correct, he was once an exclusive artist for Decca but most of his recent recordings have been on other labels. I count him as probably the greatest pianist I have heard perform live (this was over twenty-five years ago) but since then he seems to have spent more time on the rostrum. It is notable that this disc was made over a period of nearly two years.

Having returned to some of his roots, it is good that Ashkenazy is not for mere re-runs. He has clearly kept his technique in tip-top condition but what would be the point of more piano concertos when he has already recorded them every which way (including as conductor)? Instead we get some relatively rarely recorded early Rachmaninov played most affectingly. In general this is not barnstorming stuff. Instead it is full of fantasy and pointers towards the later solo piano masterworks; music to relax with which nevertheless has a challenging edge.

The main work on the disc is the set of six Moments musicaux. These were written in 1896, not long before the disastrous premiere of the First Symphony. Presumably Rachmaninov’s foray into this genre was inspired by Schubert and the outcome deserves to rank alongside his Moments. These are works that both stand alone and make a satisfactory cycle. The opening Andantino in B flat minor is the longest of the set and contains a rich variety of moods. Only in the fourth piece does Rachmaninov seriously up the tempo (to Presto) and the first four are firmly rooted in minor keys. The fifth is marked adagio and serenely in the key of D flat. The final Moment is marked Maestoso and in C major but is not as triumphal as that might sound.

The Morceaux de fantasie is a set of five pieces which again can equally be taken singly or swallowed whole. One of them is amongst Rachmaninov’s best known works – the Prelude in C# minor Op.3 No 2 of 1892. The composer later returned to the genre and, like Chopin before him, produced one per key - 24 in total but in "sets" of one, ten and thirteen! Hearing it sitting between the opening Élégie and Mélodie is rather different to when it is played as the first of a series of preludes. Ashkenazy clearly recognizes this and his performance is lighter and quicker, by over half a minute, than in his 1975 complete recordings of the preludes (now on Decca Legends). The series concludes with the playful Polichinelle in F# minor and a Serenade in B flat minor.

Finally, there are four short single pieces, two of which are song transcriptions and one of which is a posthumously published extraneous prelude. This prelude and Fragments were composed in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution as Rachmaninov was in the process of fleeing. The last piece, Vocalise, is better known in various other guises but the transcription for solo piano works well and provides a fittingly ravishing conclusion to the disc.

There is not much to say about Ashenkazy’s playing - he still has few peers in Rachmaninov. There are occasional bits of added vocalise and not only in the final piece. I have never been aware of this on Ashkenazy’s discs before and don’t know whether it is a new departure or perhaps only the latest recording techniques can pick it up. It bothered me little since it is very faint and more in tune than that of some other crooners (e.g. Sir Colin Davis).

The disc is nicely presented and there is a useful essay on the music by Geoffrey Norris but only pictures of Ashkenazy. An update on the career of this magisterial musician would have been welcome. The recorded sound is truly wonderful. This is a hybrid SACD with surround capability if you have the equipment but the stereo is so natural that I wasn’t gnashing my teeth because I don’t have such facilities.


Patrick C Waller

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