Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Symphonic Dances, op.43 (1940) [32:39]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) [32:58]
Malcolm Wilson - Philip Martin (two pianos)
rec. Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham 30-31 March 2009. DDD.
SOMM SOMMCD 098 [65:37]

Rachmaninov conceived the two piano and orchestral versions of his Symphonic Dances simultaneously, so neither is an arrangement of the other. Indeed, both versions work so well that when listening to one version you never miss the other, so complete in itself is the text. This is Rachmaninov’s final work, from a compositional career which was severely curtailed by his life as a travelling virtuoso concert pianist. The strength and power of this work makes one all the more disappointed that because of his necessity to earn a living as a pianist we were robbed of so many other works which could have been written. But whatever one’s frustration, Rachmaninov certainly gives the public a work of some substance, and he goes out in a veritable blaze of glory.

The Symphonic Dances is a great work and it requires pianists of stature, not to mention stamina; Wilson and Martin are well up to the challenge. This is a fine performance but it’s all a bit too polite. There are times, such as the climax of the second movement waltz, or the appearance of the Dies Irae in the final dance, where the music should have a wild abandon. It just doesn’t happen here. Ashkenazy and Previn are much to be preferred here for their performance is rip-roaring, no-holds-barred (Decca 444 8452 6 - a 2 CD set containing all the music for two pianos and a few solos from Ashkenazy for good measure).

Le Sacre is so obviously an orchestral work - it fascinates as much for its orchestration as for its content. It takes great insight and intelligence to make sense of this music on two pianos. Oddly what I find missing from their performance of the Symphonic Dances is exactly what makes this performance of Le Sacre so interesting. With marvellous understatement, or is it British reserve?, Wilson and Martin give a sensible and clear-cut performance, allowing individual voices to be heard, and never going over-the-top or descending into melodrama. It’s rhythmically vital and very exciting.

Whilst the Rachmaninov cannot be recommended as the best performance available, this Le Sacre can, and the disk is worth buying if you want the two works, for they make a good coupling. The sound is excellent and the pianism superb.

Bob Briggs

The pianism is superb