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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1901) [36’24].
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934) [24’02].
Lang Lang (piano)
Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre/Valery Gergiev.
rec. live Concert and Congress Hall Mikaeli, Martti Talvela Hall, Mikkeli, Finland, July 2004. DDD
DG SACD 00289 477 5499 [60’32]

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It seems almost a shame to give cutting-edge recording quality to an artist that, these days at least, simply does not seem to deserve it. Stephen Hough’s wonderful set of the complete concertos plus Paganini Rhapsody (CDA67501/2) has set a standard now that is hard for newcomers to beat. Lang Lang comes nowhere near.

The coupling of the two most popular Rachmaninov works for piano and orchestra is a useful one, but one that leaves a short playing time; just over an hour, leaving another twenty minutes spare. Having said that, by the end of this I had had more than enough.

These recordings come from a Summer concert in Finland that followed a Spring tour of Russia, so the performances should have been in the blood of all concerned.

The Second Concerto is placed first on the disc. The first question to strike the listener is just how slow this is going to be? The famous chords are as un-bell-like as they come, and lose all sense of foreboding. The recording, though, is exceptional, the piano superbly caught, wonderful depth to the orchestra, great placing of the instruments.  Yet there are some questions – the important viola line at 3’00 in is barely audible – why? This is because of the recording’s concentration on the piano. It actually sounds unrealistic – and therefore off-putting. A word of praise  - my first so far, I believe - to the solo horn player, whose climactic A flat (played A flat, sounding D flat) in his solo blossoms forth magnificently.

Gergiev it is who impresses in the slow movement. The opening string bars are shaped like a natural inhalation and exhalation. Orchestral detailing is gorgeous. Contrast this with Lang Lang’s bare-octave statement of the theme, devoid of musical interest in the present company. Lang Lang almost matches the liquid clarinet’s line at around 5’40 and to be fair his cadenza does lay a claim to the attention. But over and over again the ear is drawn to the Mariinsky Orchestra’s affinity with this music. Try the silken violins around 10’30, positively singing the melody to Lang Lang’s rather plonky accompaniment.

Surprisingly the orchestra is very slightly sluggish at the beginning of the finale, and here it is Lang Lang that ignites. The glittery music suits his persona, as a multitude of his recitals have attested. It does not take long for him to run out of steam (read ‘ideas’) however, and the music sags before it gets going, almost threatening to stop from time to time. I literally found myself yawning as the music droned on. Not Rachmaninov’s fault of course – there are plenty of vital accounts to tempt your pocket. The final flourishes are marginally exciting, but only a tiny little bit. The blaze of the orchestra at 10’56 comes far too late.

So after that almost unmitigated disaster, would the Rhapsody fare better? Yes, is the answer, although no way is it truly recommendable. Maybe this is closer to the kind of music Lang Lang can play. He doesn’t strike me as too versatile, so there is very definitely a kind as opposed to several.

Good on DG for tracking every single Variation. Again one can only marvel at Gergiev’s ear for orchestral sonority and his clear rapport with his players, who remain alive to his every command. There are things to admire here – the ‘Tempo di minuetto’ really is the tempo of a minuet, blossoming into a stately dance (Variation 12), and the scherzando Variation 15 suits Lang Lang down to the ground.  But momentum can sag (Variation 9) and voltage can be low, too (Variation 13). And the famous Eighteenth? Not the moment of magic it should be and the orchestra seem slightly recessed here.

Towards the end, the glissando that can be so outrageous fails to make its effect and as for that end itself ... well, what is it supposed to be? It can be witty (Ashkenazy, Decca) or more matter-of-fact, more serious. Here it does not seem to know what it is, the last note artificially elongated.

I keep on hoping with Lang Lang that his early promise will be realised. It is a shame that hopes are, once more, dashed.

Colin Clarke



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