Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1 (1891) [26:50]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40 (1926)* [27:03]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934)** [22:54]
Simon Trpčeski (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 3 February 2010;*26-28 January 2011; **9 April 2009. DDD
AVIE AV2191 [77:09]

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) is exhilarating.

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 last.

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!

John Quinn

If you haven’t already sampled this fine partnership of Trpčeski and Petrenko in Rachmaninov, don’t delay any longer!