This is a welcome re-release
from Hyperion on its budget Helios label.
When these performances first appeared
in 1990, critical opinion was divided
as to their merits. The back of this
CD quotes statements of high praise
from the American Record Guide and Classic
CD, among others. From memory, the review
that appeared in Gramophone Magazine
was harsh in its criticism. For my part,
I incline more to the former view. This
disc has much to recommend it.
The program opens with
Rachmaninov's Suite No. 1, an
early work by a young composer in thrall
to Tchaikovsky. Shelley and MacNamara
play it with charm. The opening Barcarolle
is a touch too fleet, but pretty nonetheless
and given a lightness of touch. A beautiful
wash of sound underpinning the melody
in the second movement gives way to
ghostly sounds in the third. Only the
finale is a little disappointing – this
music tends to plod unless played with
real fantasy, and the pianists don't
let themselves go here as they should.
The Second Suite
is also given a lovely performance,
and indeed comes off better than the
first here. This more mature work elicits
a more sympathetic response from the
pianists, with Shelley in particular
relishing the characteristic singing
lines that are quintessential Rachmaninov.
The playing throughout is characterful
and lyrical, and builds to a strong
The final work on the
disc is the largest, the last to be
composed and receives the best performance.
Rachmaninov wrote his Symphonic Dances
after the failure of his Third Symphony,
and he did not anticipate that his next
big orchestral score would find many
backers - the dedicatee, Eugene Ormandy,
excepted. The piano version of the piece
was written from the short score with
the goal of presenting the piece in
performance in a series of two piano
recitals that Rachmaninov planned to
give with Horowitz. According to Robert
Matthew-Walker's excellent liner notes,
Rachmaninov also suggested to his record
company, RCA, that it might want to
record this piece with Horowitz and
himself at the keyboard. What a shame
that RCA did not!
Shelley and MacNamara,
however, have recorded it, and beautifully.
They clearly take the piece at its title,
as this is very much a symphonic reading,
with attention given to colouring the
various "instrumental" lines
and judicious use of tempo fluctuation.
The opening builds nicely to the statement
of the first subject. I particularly
liked the way both pianists pulled back
and savoured the wash of notes that
underlines the saxophone melody from
about [2:46]. The middle dance opens
with chords that sound more melancholy
than menacing, but once the hurdy-gurdy
kicks in the sense of unease is palpable.
There is also a wonderful breath-catching
moment at [2:40]. Then to the finale,
which here bristles with syncopations
and builds inexorably to a blazing conclusion.
Anyone who knows and loves this piece
in its orchestral form should get to
know it in this alternative version,
and I cannot imagine that you would
be able to get a better reading this
at the price. That said, I understand
that Ashkenazy and Previn have recorded
this repertoire for Decca to great acclaim,
but I believe their performances are
only available as a Double Decca release.
Reservations? The main
problem with the disc is the sound quality.
The balance between the two pianos -
always difficult to get right - favours
Shelley's instrument and sets MacNamara's
back a little too much. The recorded
sound itself is also more diffuse than
one would expect from Hyperion, and
the upper registers of the two pianos
have a slight tendency to brittleness.
aside, though, this is a well filled
disc that is very good value for its
asking price. If the repertoire appeals,
do not hesitate.