Ever since I reviewed
the same artists’ impressive CD of the Second and Third Piano
Concertos of Rachmaninov last year I’ve been waiting impatiently
for them to complete their traversal of the concertante works.
Now the wait is over – and it has been worthwhile.
Last time round I made some comparisons between Trpčeski’s performances
of the Second and Third concertos and the similarly coupled
recording by Stephen Hough. I don’t propose to do that on this
occasion for the simple reason that Hyperion have not released
separately Hough’s disc so to acquire them means investing in
a two-disc set.
Let’s start at the end, so to speak, with the most popular of
the three works on this disc, the Rhapsody on a Theme of
Paganini. I had thought that the very best thing to originate
in the American city of Baltimore was that magnificent TV series,
The Wire until I was reminded by Richard Bratby’s notes
that the first performance of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
was given – by Rachmaninov and the Philadelphia Orchestra under
Stokowski – in Baltimore in 1934. So make that two very
best things from Baltimore! This marvellous piece “embodies
[Rachmaninov’s] late style at its brilliant and witty best”
in the words of Michael Steinberg. As a composition it’s a bravura
technical tour de force and it requires equal bravura
in performance – though bravura without mere flashiness. In
that respect Trpčeski and Petrenko do the piece complete justice.
Indeed, though the pianist inevitably catches the attention
in a performance of the Rhapsody the work of the conductor
and orchestra deserves as much attention in a successful account
– which this one is. That’s because the accompaniment is often
hard to ‘place’ since much of it is almost fragmentary in nature.
The famous Variation 18 apart, there aren’t too many sweeping
tunes; instead the orchestra oftentimes touches in little flecks
of colour and detail. Subtlety and precision is called for and
Petrenko and his fine orchestra deliver. I admired, for example,
the way in which the very soft string figurations are placed
by Petrenko in Variation 7. Earlier on, in Variation 3, the
orchestra matches the delicacy and vivacity of Trpčeski’s pianism.
Throughout the performance Petrenko shows what a fine and alert
accompanist he is, providing orchestral support that’s worthy
of his soloist.
And what a soloist Trpčeski is! Looking back through my listening
notes I find terms such as “delicate and refined” (Variation
12), “light and lithe” (Variation 15) and “dexterous” (also
Variation 15). I also noted the gentle gravitas that he and
Petrenko bring to Variation 7. And the opportunities for display
are grasped as well. Variations 8 and 9, for example, storm
away at a fine lick, though the pace is expertly controlled.
And from Variation 19 onwards pianist and conductor bring the
piece home in style with vivacious virtuosity. As for the celebrated
Variation 18, the way for which is beautifully prepared during
Variation 17, Trpčeski’s way with it is poised and lyrical.
When the orchestra joins him, the music is played warmly and
romantically, as it should be, but any temptation to wallow
in a Big Tune is rightly resisted. All in all this is a very
fine account of the Rhapsody and I can’t imagine any
purchasers who are drawn principally by this work will be disappointed.
Nor will they be disappointed by either concerto performance.
The First Concerto is an astonishingly precocious work for an
eighteen-year-old. In I Trpčeski catches all the dash and youthful
vigour in Rachmaninov’s writing but already, even as a teenager,
the composer was prone to moments of introspection and Trpčeski
is wholly convincing in these passages also. The RLPO’s accompaniment
is very fine and full of commitment – this orchestra really
knows how to play Russian music nowadays. The cadenza (9:10
– 11:40) makes huge demands on the pianist but Trpčeski is more
than equal to the challenges. In II the soulful melancholy with
which the music is permeated is perfectly inflected by Trpčeski
and by Petrenko too. Theirs is a very lovely rendition of this
movement. Much of III is barnstorming in style and the present
performance is admirable. But just as impressive is the more
introspective section (2:06 – 5:01) to which these performers
impart the right degree of wistful romanticism – the RLPO strings
excel in this passage. The pyrotechnical conclusion (from 7:15)
Some thirty-five years separate Rachmaninov’s first concerto
from his last and although the same compositional fingerprints
can be found all over the Fourth Concerto it’s by no means the
mixture as before. The velvety melancholy especially catches
the ear in I and Trpčeski and Petrenko convey this in a
very natural way. However, the more dazzling passages are equally
successful. Trpčeski displays the full extent of his tonal range
in this movement, deploying a fine, deep tone where appropriate
but elsewhere his touch is deliciously light and whimsical.
The mighty, if brief, climax (from about 6:30 to 6:57) is really
ardent, setting the seal on an outstanding rendition of this
movement by all concerned.
Trpčeski begins II with great delicacy and feeling. When the
strings join him with their “Three Blind Mice” material I love
the velvet softness of their collective tone. Until 4:25 the
music is akin to a ruminative nocturne but then there’s a brief
episode of greater power and urgency before the nocturnal mood
is re-established. Throughout the course of the movement the
present performers do full justice to Rachmaninov, the nostalgic,
melancholy poet. If II was mainly about soulful poetry then
III is largely about mercurial brilliance. Here Trpčeski dazzles
with his fingerwork and the acutely pointed orchestral support
is excellent. The occasional moments of introspective reverie
are well handled but this movement is chiefly concerned with
display and the performance is wholly successful in this regard,
culminating in the big bravura finish, which makes for a splendid
pay-off. I used the word ‘outstanding’ of the first movement
but, in truth, it can be used with equal fairness to describe
the performance of the whole concerto; this is an exemplary
reading, which held my attention effortlessly from first to
This disc is a worthy successor in every respect to the previous
volume. Common to both CDs are superb pianism, inspired conducting
and excellent orchestral playing. Also common to both releases
is the team of producer John Fraser and engineer Dave Pigott.
They produced marvellous sound on the first disc and they’ve
repeated the feat here. The sound is remarkably consistent despite
the fact that the three works were set down at three sets of
sessions between 2009 and 2011. If you’ve already acquired the
coupling of the Second and Third concertos you probably don’t
need any encouragement from me to complete the set. If you haven’t
already sampled this fine partnership of Trpčeski and Petrenko
in Rachmaninov, don’t delay any longer!
Now, Avie, what about following these superb concerto discs
by giving us Petrenko and the RLPO in Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony?
That’s another mouth-watering prospect!