One of the most grown-up review sites around

54,416 reviews
and more.. and still writing ...

Search MusicWeb Here



International mailing

Founder: Len Mullenger                                    Editor in Chief:John Quinn             


Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concertos: No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1 (1891, rev. 1917) [26’02]; No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17 (1901) [32’26]; No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909) [38’23]; No. 4 in G minor, Op. 43 (1926, rev. 1941) [23’44]. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934) [23’44].
Stephen Hough (piano)
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton.
rec. Eugene McDermott Concert Hall, Morton H Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, 28 June 2003 (Rhapsody) and live in concerts during April-May 2004 (Concertos) DDD
HYPERION CDA67501/2 [74’41 + 70’54]

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 are.

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 world.

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 showmanship!

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 end.

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.

Unhesitatingly recommended, then. Hyperion’s presentation is exemplary. The extensive booklet notes are by David Fanning, and are models of their kind.


Colin Clarke


Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.