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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op.18 (1901) [34:18]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op. 43 (1935) [24:09]
Elena Caldine (piano)
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/ Dmitry Yablonsky
rec. Moscow Radio Studio 5, January 2006. DDD
BEL AIR BAM2040 [58:19]

 

 

The Ukrainian 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 interpretive insights.

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.

Caldine’s playing 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.

Unfortunately 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).

The Paganini 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

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