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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concertos: no.1 in F sharp minor op.1 (1891) [27:45], no.2 in C minor op.18 (1901) [33:56], no.3 in D minor op.30 (1909) [41:15], no.4 in G minor (1927) [24:06]; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini op.43 (1934) [24:06]
Howard Shelley (piano)
Scottish National Orchestra/Bryden Thomson
rec. 1, 3 December 1989, 10, 12 April 1990, Caird Hall, Dundee, Scotland.
CHANDOS CHAN 241-30 [78:36 + 75:22]

Listened to with half an ear, this might seem a reasonable enough proposition. The performances are fluent, with plenty of stamina and the right sort of romantic surge, except for no.3 which struck me from the first as a hum-drum, disengaged affair. Moreover, Bryden Thomsonís Baxian credentials ensure that plenty of dark, "dangerous" sounds emanate from the orchestra.

When you start looking into the details of works which have been recorded by myriads of great pianists, these performances are really neither here nor there. Observance of dynamics is one problem. Rachmaninovís careful gradation of dynamics in the faster variations of the Paganini Rhapsody, nos.8 and 9 for example, are ironed out into a generalized forte, and even in the famous 18th variation no one would guess from this performance that the left hand triplets at the beginning are marked pianissimo, the first five notes of the theme are mezzo forte, the next four answer with a piano, then mezzo forte again. Then, when the strings come in and the piano has big triplet chords, Shelley gives exactly the same weight to the chords which outline the theme (and are accented by the composer) and those which simply go up the same chord. The result is a heavy pounding which may sound superficially impressive until you put it alongside a performance like the composerís own which effortlessly reveals why he wrote in all these markings and what he meant by them. If you continue with Rachmaninovís performance you will also note that he saw no reason to end this variation with a lengthy ritardando (if he had, he would have marked it in).

Another question is that of Rachmaninovís multi-voiced contrapuntal writing. When the piano takes up the first lyrical theme of concerto no.1, its melody is soon duetting with the violas and bassoon. The idea is presumably that the piano melody soars above the texture, with the violas and bassoon not far behind, while the pianoís sixteenth notes (divided between the hands) wrap a delicate tracery around them. In this performance, the melody is not sufficiently separated (in colouring and dynamics) from the sixteenth notes to stand out, and the casual listener might suppose the principal melody to be that of the violas and bassoon. Described on paper this may sound a niggling point, but it actually amounts to misrepresentation of the music, and even the least technically informed listener is going to find that some famous tunes in concerto no.2 have acquired an extra note or two. These are notes from the accompanying texture which are played with the same weight as the melody and thus sound a part of it.

These multi-tiered textures are a particular characteristic of the earlier concertos and are almost wholly absent from the more solidly chordal no.4, which is perhaps the most successful performance here, at least in the outer movements. The tempo chosen for the middle movement is too slow, however, and makes the music seem laboured. On the face of it, this interpretation of Rachmaninovís "Largo" marking might seem more correct than Michelangeliís, which verges on the Andante; but Michelangeliís tempo proves virtually identical to Rachmaninovís own. Evidently both he and Michelangeli realised that the music would become heavy at a real Largo pace.

So no recommendation here, Iím afraid. I did not join in the popular acclamation of Stephen Houghís Hyperion cycle but gave a recommendation to Igor Marshev on Danacord provided you are ready to accept broad tempi throughout. Rachmaninov himself is obviously hors concours but you wonít want to have such old recordings - good as they are for their date - as your only versions. For better or worse, some of the finest performances have been set down by pianists who didnít record the whole cycle, headed by the incredible, unbeatable Michelangeli no.4. A Richter version of no.2 is indispensable - he also recorded no.1, which I havenít heard - with Edith Farnadi not far behind; will her Westminster recordings ever be reissued? Horowitz in no.3 cannot be ignored, but there are too many snags in all his versions to make them your only one. The Ashkenazy/Ormandy no.3 shows the pianist at his absolute peak.

Christopher Howell



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