This disc was first issued in 1994 as Hyperion CDA66654. With
your permission, I'll move from its end backwards.
Dances are Rachmaninov's last completed major work. In
the better known orchestral version they are one of the most
marvellous symphonic works of the last century. This is partially
due to the ingenious orchestration, with many unforgettable
effects. Almost every measure has surprises, non-standard
solutions, fresh combinations of timbres. I am afraid to say,
that the two-piano version takes away a lot: you see only
the black-and-white silhouettes of the same images. Just imagine
studying Monet's paintings from black-and-white copies! Still,
it gives you something new to wonder at: the virtuosity of
two pianists, that manage to almost recreate the orchestral
effect. Also, some moments (trills, chords) suit the piano
technique so naturally that there is no doubt that the orchestral
version was the derivative.
first movement is in ternary form, with outer sections grotesque
and demonic, while the middle one is wide and flowing, with
one of the most "Russian" themes that Rachmaninov
wrote. Alexeev and Demidenko here made a decision that probably
not everyone will agree with; at least, it took me quite some
time to get used to it. The middle section is stated very
simply, very minimalistically, without added emotions, like
a white page. It is beautiful, but ... different. It's not
like the orchestral version, which is a triptych with pages
of more or less comparable intensity - though achieved by
different means. Other pianists follow the orchestral pattern
and put some weight into the middle section - for example,
Ashkenazy and Previn (Decca London 444847-2) make it more
full-blooded. But then, in the outer sections their robotic
demons are no match for Alexeev and Demidenko's terrifying
second movement is a dusky, Sibelian valse-macabre. It has
a ghostly air, but its ghosts are graceful. You don't see
Mephisto's sharp teeth, but feel his will behind the swirl,
hear his violin luring people into the Maelstrom of dance.
Alexeev and Demidenko's waltz is more relaxed and less ominous.
What is really scary is the accompanying wheezing and groaning
of one of the pianists. Only knowledge about a successfully
recorded third dance kept me from worrying about the guy's
last dance starts with the dark drive of a witches' Sabbath.
It is permeated by Rachmaninov's familiar vade mecum
- the Dies irae plainchant, often in disguises. The
Dies irae is opposed by hymns of the Russian Orthodox
church. The ending is an ambiguous triumph: who won? who had
the last word? whose dark laughter do we hear? No complaints
about the performance in this part: it is powerful and assured,
and the ending is brilliant.
Russian Rhapsody, written down in a couple of days
when the composer was not yet eighteen, is his first essay
in the two-piano field. It was not published until after his
death, although it already bears signs of genuine Rachmaninov
- still wrapped in some Borodin and Tchaikovsky, for sure.
The piece consists of a folk-like theme and a set of variations,
some stately, some plaintive, some playful, gradually building
in complexity. Alexeev and Demidenko perform it with care
and respect, and it comes out as very enjoyable, though the
dynamic range could probably be wider.
Second Suite was born in the creative blast of 1901,
following the hiatus caused by the fiasco of his First Symphony.
It is very different from the First Suite Op.5: gone are the
romantic cooing, the sweet tears and the morning mists. Here,
Rachmaninov is strong, self-assured, and even the Romance
shows the love of an adult with full personality, not the
borrowed oohs and aahs of a poetic youth. The texture resembles
a thick Persian carpet: there is hardly a place to add another
note! The mood is jubilant, exhilarating, ecstatic throughout
almost all the 20 minutes of the suite, but in Alexeev and
Demidenko's hands it is not arduous at all. Actually, I would
probably name this the high point of their album, where their
"fast and furious" approach bears all the fruit
without any negative side-effects.
first part is a march of chords, easily reminding of all the
Great Gates and Festive Overtures of the Russian nationalistic
music. The Waltz that follows is marked Presto
and is more of a virtuosic scherzo, with threads of waltz
woven into it. I must admit that Demidenko and Alexeev make
more out of this movement than many other performers, and
in their presentation the name Valse does not sound
like a misnomer. Ashkenazy and Previn sound mechanical by
comparison. They struggle with the music, whereas Demidenko
and Alexeev ride it as if they own it.
Romance is something between Tchaikovsky's Snowdrop
from The Seasons, and the slow movement of Rachmaninov's
Second Concerto. Imagine a Russian barcarole. All four hands
are well employed, creating simultaneous shimmering of several
semi-transparent veils around the broad, heartfelt melody,
which could easily come from one of Rachmaninov's love songs.
Glorious playing here too, very sensitive and well-measured.
Tarantella starts as a volcano eruption - and yes,
it was written before the Busoni concerto. There is
a veritable torrent of sound, with an almost orchestral sonority.
This is probably one of those piano pieces where no orchestration
can be adequate - let alone better. And the playing is nothing
short of awe-inspiring. For me, this part alone would justify
the purchase of the disc.
left the Medtner pieces for the end, because it's never easy
to write about Medtner. His music is so subtle and elusive.
It is music of ephemeral shades and clouds, of waltzing winds,
of constant reminiscences and interleaving references. And
very, very serious and sober, reflecting the austere personality
of the composer. Knight Errant is somber and turbulent,
with a whole family of powerful romantic melodies masterfully
growing out of the opening theme. Don't believe anyone telling
you that Medtner is just Rachmaninov without the tunes! And
the play of harmonies is mesmerizing. The Round-Dance
is probably less substantial, but still pretty. The roundness
of the dance is visible in the never-ending circling of the
themes around each other, their submerging and resurfacing,
like stooping and rising of groups dancing a khorovod.
Great, great playing! You don't feel that two pianists are involved
- it's like one huge virtuosic octopus, with one heart, one brain.
Absolute precision. The fast parts are breathtaking. The quiet
parts enthrall with their beauty of tone and perfectly felt intonations.
Everything is intense and focused. Don't forget low price and
generous packing. And good notes in English, French and German.
Putting the Second Suite immediately after the Medtner
pieces results is a long streak of energetic, hard-driven music,
which is tiring. The lyrical, quieter side of both composers is
almost absent: it's all Sturm und Drang. I already lamented
the understatement in the middle section of the first Symphonic
Dance, though I understand that this was the deliberate choice
of the pianists. And shame on the recording engineers for their
failure to adequately record the fortissimos! At times they sound
plain and empty, just ugly bangs. Finally, one of the pianists
adds extra-musical wheezes here and there.
Forget the cons. You don't hear such playing too often.
also Review by Rob Barnett