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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940) [31:59]
Suite No. 2, Op. 17 (1900) [22:43]
Suite No. 1, Op. 5, Fantaisie-tableaux (1893) [22:58]
Peter Donohoe and Martin Roscoe (pianos)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 24-25 September 2004; Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 5 April 2002 (Suite No. 1). DDD
NAXOS 8.557062 [77:40]



With the successes of his ever-growing list of British piano concerto recordings for Naxos fresh in our minds, it is easy to forget that Peter Donohoe first made his reputation as a an interpreter of Russian music. He shared the second prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982 when no first prize was awarded. His early discography for EMI included a set of Rachmaninov's 24 preludes, a disc of Prokofiev's war sonatas, and recordings of Tchaikovsky's piano concertos - including an award-winning account of the sprawling second piano concerto, complete and uncut - all of which have been long deleted although the piano concertos have been restored on a Gemini issue.

For many years, Donohoe has formed a regular piano duo with Martin Roscoe, also a fabulous and versatile pianist in his own right and one of Hyperion's stars. The maturity of their partnership and their instinctive understanding of each other's musical thoughts is evident on this disc. More delicate and finely nuanced readings of these pieces are very hard to find. 

The disc charts a course back in time through Rachmaninov's composing career. It opens with the brooding and enigmatic Symphonic Dances. Though better known in its orchestral guise, this two piano version of this late work is no mere transcription or reduction. Rachmaninov prepared it from the short score for his own use in concert with Horowitz as his duo partner. If you love this piece, you owe it to yourself to hear this alternative version.

The first movement, which begins with quiet chattering, is soon launched by powerful left hands, firm fingers shaping the melodic line in the right hand of the lead pianist (Donohoe or Roscoe?). The bell-like passage that leads into the 'saxophone' melody is hushed, and the melody itself gentle, reflective and genuinely beautiful, allowed to flow naturally by Roscoe and Donohoe. There are some gorgeous washes of notes here. When the music builds again it is a little understated at first but rises to a mighty climax. The little bell sounds just before the ten minute mark are beguiling, and the final bars tease. The second movement begins with ringing chords and a light treatment of the uneasy waltz. Donohoe and Roscoe present this movement as disconcerting rather than terrifying. There is a rare lightness to the final movement too, with more bell sonorities from the right hands of both pianists and power and drive where called for. The duo preserve a sense of mystery and are subtle in their treatment of the Dies Irae references. All up, this is a very satisfying performance. 

Stepping back in time forty years, the second suite shows Rachmaninov finding his own voice as a composer, though the influence of Tchaikovsky and, to an extent, Chopin, can still be heard. There is grandeur in the introductory march to the second suite, and the valse moves at a good clip, with sudden gushes of romantic fancy. There is some fire in the finale too, with deep ringing sonorities from the lower end of the second keyboard. Great stuff.

The contrast with the dreamy mist of the Barcarolle that opens the first suite is pronounced. The reflective internal movements slip by like fallen leaves carried on the surface of a languid stream. The finale has a grunt and thrust, emphatic in pointing up the bell sounds that Rachmaninov loved so much, even at this early stage. This is not top drawer Rachmaninov, but comes off very well here in all of its Tchaikovskian sweetness and melancholy.

The recorded sound is immediate and bright, with one piano in each channel, though the venue for the recording of the first suite has a harsher edge to its acoustic. Keith Anderson's liner notes, as usual, are concise and helpful.

This disc comes into direct competition with a Hyperion Helios disc I reviewed just over a year ago. The key difference between the two discs is the order of the pieces, Hyperion offering chronology to Naxos' reverse chronology. 

Roscoe and Donohoe turn in the better performance of the first suite, but the honours are pretty evenly split in the second. Both accounts of the Symphonic Dances are superb. Donohoe and Roscoe are wonderfully pianistic. Their playing has grace and delicacy, every phrase subtly shaped, the structure of each movement weighed and measured. Their approach is very different to that of Shelley and McNamara, who are much more symphonic in their thinking. They hit the keys harder, and swoon with greater fantasy. Their playing is more brash, especially in the final movement. It is also a little rougher around the edges, but that roughness brings with it greater intensity and a sense of danger. Shelly and McNamara are gripping, while Donohoe and Roscoe mesmerise. 

If pressed to pick between these two discs, the new Naxos CD would have a slight edge, because of its superior recorded sound, marginally lower price tag and exquisite first suite. However, as much as I admire Donohoe and Roscoe in the Symphonic Dances, I would be loathe to be without the fire and excitement of Shelley and McNamara. At budget price you can afford to buy both.

Tim Perry 


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