pianist Elena Caldine studied in Moscow, becoming a prize
winner in the Second Rachmaninov International Piano Competition.
She recorded an all-Liszt programme in 2004 before moving
to the United States. It was there that she worked with Howard
Shelley in preparation for this recording. Shelley would seem
an ideal choice as mentor, having recorded all of Rachmaninov’s
piano music. His influence can be heard in some intelligent
Caldine and her
conductor, Dmitry Yablonsky, take a rather lighter, more relaxed
view of the Second Concerto than we are accustomed
to. Yablonsky sets a sensible tempo for the first movement
and sticks to it more or less throughout. There is ample rubato,
of course, but no major slackening of tempo for the second
subject or other lyrical passages as is so often the case
on other recordings. The converse of this, however, is a certain
lack of excitement in the build-up to climaxes. Too often
one expects an accelerando only to find none. Yet somehow
this adds integrity to Rachmaninov’s structure, far more rigorous
in this performance than the amorphous mess that can result
from over-indulgent tempo changes. Yablonsky also unearths
a large amount of lovely wind detail within this movement.
One of many examples is the repeated note motif heard on clarinets
in the lead-in to the second subject, a delightful effect
that can often go unnoticed. He also elicits some wonderfully
expressive playing in the counter-melodies that accompany
the piano. Kudos to the first clarinet and horn - complete
with subtle but distinctively Russian vibrato.
in the first movement is generally very fine. There is an
admirable clarity to her fingerwork and she really lets us
hear the various simultaneous strands that permeate the solo
writing. Indeed, the development section features some dazzling
repeated notes. There is, however, a shallowness to her tone,
particularly in the treble, and an apparent unwillingness
to really ‘let go’.
This feeling of
‘playing safe’ also applies to the second movement, where
Caldine simply refuses to push ahead into the central climax.
Elsewhere, an obsession with projecting each and every note
with clarity occasionally allows the musical line to get lost.
But at a nicely flowing tempo, the movement is reasonably
acceptable, with a tender clarinet solo near the start. String
playing is a touch scrappy - ensemble-wise this does appear
to be somewhat under-rehearsed - although, once again, Yablonsky
highlights some interesting orchestral details. The accompanying
triplet figures played by the wind at the close of the movement
come across vividly without dominating. The horn is allowed
to penetrate when necessary - a beautiful effect.
the final movement is something of a write-off. Yablonsky
sets a steady pace but Caldine appears at sea in her first
substantial solo entry - the tempo wavers uncontrollably,
seemingly in an effort actually to get from one note to the
next. It was also in this movement that I noticed a distinct
lack of body in the orchestral sound, not something that was
cause for concern in the first two. The whole movement is
essentially lifeless, having nothing of the forward momentum
and sense of elation characteristic of Stephen Hough’s recent
Hyperion recording (CDA67501/2).
Variations fare a little better. It is a more dramatic
piece and the orchestral writing is on a more even footing
with the piano than it is in the concerto. Caldine shows greater
temperament and the famous eighteenth variation surges ahead
passionately rather than lingering indulgently. Bel Air provide
only a single track for this work, whereas one track per variation
would have been more useful.
On the whole,
these are decent performances with some interesting points
to recommend them. When the catalogue is as full of recordings
as it is with these works, however, Caldine and Yablonsky
simply cannot compete. There are an inordinate number of ‘great’
performances out there, particularly of the Second Concerto, that ‘good’ is simply redundant. For both works coupled as here - and
with the other three concertos - go for Hough’s acclaimed
Hyperion set. For absolute authority and fairly poor sound
search out the composer’s own recordings (Naxos 8.110601 for the concerto, 8.110602 for
the variations). Otherwise, there are plenty of ‘great’ pianists
to choose from. Ashkenazy, Earl Wild, Byron Janis and many
others. All offer something distinctive allied with greater
temperament and technical facility.
Owen E. Walton