A truly superb set
of Rachmaninov works for piano and orchestra.
I decided to live with
these performances for a while (other
reviews have appeared previously on
MusicWeb: see below), in a sense
to see if they really are as good as
I initially thought them to be. They
Curiously, the first
time I ever heard Rachmaninov Second
was with a very young Stephen Hough
as soloist - with the Hallé,
although the conductor on that occasion
escapes me. Evidently Hough has lived
with these concertos for a long time
and, although still a young man, he
plays with a great amount of maturity.
More, he accords Rachmaninov the respect
due to one of the great Masters, and
this goes for matters musicological
as much as anything. Researching the
composer’s own performances, learning
from them and transmuting his findings
into vital performances that speak to
an early twenty-first century mentality
is no small achievement.
That these performances
are live (except for the Rhapsody) makes
this all the more remarkable. Hough’s
fingerwork continually takes the breath
away. His velocity and clarity seemingly
know no bounds.
The First Concerto
suppurates the Great Romantic Virtuoso
from its every pore, and nowhere more
so than in its opening bars, with its
quick-fire octaves contrasting with
the long, languorous melodies which
Hough plays with a superb legato. The
recording supports the orchestra, realising
a good depth of sound without muddying.
Listen, too, to the gorgeous string
chords that open the second movement.
It is also easy to see the link with
the Grieg concerto that the booklet
notes point out. If the finale is more
obviously the work of a fledgling composer,
it sparkles infectiously nonetheless.
A special mention perhaps for the glorious,
heavy Dallas brass at around 1’55. Hough’s
remarkable accuracy and dexterity -
how much patching was necessary, I wonder?
- coupled with a magnificent feeling
for the essence of Rachmaninov mean
that the audience’s cheers at the end
are justly deserved.
The playing order is
important here. Quite simply because
after the First Concerto you will want
to hear more. Running straight on, the
Fourth Concerto has always been, unjustly,
the least-aired concerto of the four.
It is not an easy nut to crack. The
earlier three play more obviously to
the virtuoso pianist/composer tradition.
However, as Michelangeli triumphantly
proved in his famous HMV recording,
it is a real gem of a piece. It is certainly
more interior in its mode of expression
than any other work on this set, and
Hough and Litton respond magnificently.
I like David Fanning’s explanation that,
‘... the music’s insecurities and vacillations
are precisely what give it its potential
appeal to post-modern sensibilities’.
Hough’s way with chordal
writing, so important here, is such
that he is never ‘plonky’ - there’s
always a real sense of line. The hypnotic
oscillations and the spare textures
make the slow movement required listening
for a full picture of this composer’s
The Paganini Rhapsody
closes the first disc. This is the only
studio recording on the set, and impresses
in Hough and Litton’s ability to see
how the various variations work towards
clear structural goals. I like the way,
for example, the hushed Eleventh Variation
seems yearning to break out into lyricism
- a lyricism that arrives in the famous
eighteenth, of course. Telling that
one expects applause at the end; Hough’s
glissando in the final pages is pure
Learning from Rachmaninov’s
own performances, the opening of the
Second is no portentously slowed-down
affair. Instead he keeps to the tempo
of the main body of the movement, a
decision that is entirely in keeping
with his reading. There is a great sense
of onward flow. Hough’s magnificent
fingerwork is called upon repeatedly.
Special mentions should go to the solo
horn, whose solo (around 7’38) is a
model of legato.
The detailed recording
comes into its own in the calm, flowing
slow movement. If strings lack the last
degree of warmth, and the close is not
quite as spellbinding as it might have
been, there is so much to admire one
just wants to hear it again.
The finale owns great
strength of purpose, the ‘live’ feeling
in every bar and most notably towards
The speed of the opening
of the Third may surprise some. No hanging
about here. Instead, the theme given
out in simple octaves by the piano is
pregnant with its own possibilities.
There is a nice sense of space about
the recording and this helps this performance
be the success it clearly is.. That
openness does not preclude intimacy
either. This is a massively varied reading,
with time for introspection alongside
the barn-storming virtuosity.
The orchestra comes
into its own in the slow movement, where
strings spin a long, tender line. Hough
matches their involvement. Try around
2’15, when themes seem to tumble over
themselves under his fingers in a flood
of inspiration. Most importantly, the
Hough/Litton partnership captures the
music’s natural rise and fall perfectly.
The finale emerges
naturally from the slow movement. Amazingly,
Hough brings Rachmaninov’s arrangement
of Mendelssohn (Midsummer Night’s
Dream) to mind in some of his playing,
yet still manages to drum up huge momentum
for the close.
then. Hyperion’s presentation is exemplary.
The extensive booklet notes are by David
Fanning, and are models of their kind.