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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1900-1) [32:26]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909) [38:23]
Stephen Hough (piano)
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton
rec. in concert, McDermott Concert Hall, Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, April-May 2004
HYPERION CDA 67649 [70:54]
Experience Classicsonline


This isn't officially labelled as part of Hyperion's "Romantic Piano Concerto" series, but we can logically consider it an extension thereof, as Stephen Hough has previously contributed estimable performances of both standard and unfamiliar repertoire to the series.

Hough has carved himself so prominent a niche as an "intellectual" artist - his performances are not arid or overanalyzed, but rather thoughtful and probing - that it's easy to forget about his sheer virtuoso technical chops. Certainly he brings his own point of view to bear on this music from the start, dispatching the C minor's introductory chords as a peremptory, almost perfunctory, introduction, where many other soloists strain for ominous breadth. But his interpretative ingenuity mostly makes itself felt in subtler yet more meaningful ways.

Even if Rachmaninov hadn't written his concertos specifically for himself to perform, his compositional style reflected his own pianistic technical strengths in its demands for power and fluency. Most pianists tend to favor one or the other of these attributes: thus, we remember Ashkenazy (Decca, and a D minor for RCA), for example, primarily for his dexterity - though he musters plenty of strength behind it - and Horowitz (the EMI D minor in mono, the RCA in stereo) primarily for power and brilliance. Hough, in contrast, fuses both qualities in equal measure: not only does he take all the passagework, whether linear or chordal, in stride, but he projects it all with a large, powerful tone. The various cadenzas dazzle by their unique combination of speed and strength; the opening of the D minor's finale is a bubbling cauldron on the verge of erupting, a manner Hough maintains through the jagged chordal "preview" of the second theme.

Nor are these mere technical exegeses that simply project all the notes indiscriminately, in the manner of Weissenberg's C minor (EMI). Hough has the control -- the true virtuosity - to find and project musical shapes within the demanding figurations. In the second theme of the C minor's first movement, for example, Hough conveys the harmonic progressions lurking within the rippling left-hand accompaniment; you actually "hear the chords," which makes the theme itself sound more substantial. Only in the cadenza-like passage of the C minor's Adagio sostenuto does Hough settle for an impressive but empty flourish but then he seems, oddly, less attuned to this movement overall. Otherwise, these are simply staggering performances, the more so for being recorded in concert.

The Dallas Symphony is not my idea of a front-line orchestra and Andrew Litton does not impress me. He does however keep his forces in good order, and in the C minor Concerto, at least, Rachmaninov's scoring - assigning melodies to massed strings in octaves, alternating this with full-throated brass chording - minimizes the ensemble's weaknesses. In the D minor, which more frequently deploys the strings in discrete sections, they sound underpowered. The engineers might have given the woodwinds greater prominence in the C minor's first-movement development, but they couldn't have improved the principal flute's breathy, unsupported tone in the slow movement, which rather critically lets the side down. As seems to be the case on so many current recordings, however, the principal clarinet is shiny and expressive.

Hough's indelible pianism earns this disc a library niche, but you'll probably be wanting something with stronger orchestral backing as well. In the C minor, it's hard to beat Rubinstein (RCA), whether on the earlier recording with Reiner's firm, dignified support, or on the later one with Ormandy offering a rich-toned Philadelphia backdrop. There's also the Ashkenazy/Previn (Decca) with its stunning finale. The D minor poses tougher choices - many performances are serviceable, few stand out. Mogilevsky's (Melodiya) is well worth seeking out, in whatever format; so, for the jaded, is the wayward but intelligent collaboration of Tamas Vásàry and Yuri Ahronovich (DG). Of more conventional accounts, that of Kocsis (Philips) will serve well.

Stephen Francis Vasta




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