Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17 (1901) [36:03]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1 (1891, rev. 1917) [28:24]
Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 (1913) [27:15]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909) [44:38]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 43 (1926, rev. 1941) [27:31]
Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42 (1931) [19:40]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934) [23:44]
John Lill (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Tadaaki Otaka
rec. 1993-1996, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea (concertos), and 19 January 1994, Wyastone Leys, Monmouthshire, U.K. (sonata).
NIMBUS RECORDS NI 1720 [3 CDs: 64:37 + 71:53 + 71:17]
This is a compilation of individual releases which have appeared and indeed are still available on the Nimbus label. Parts of these were apparently licensed to the Brilliant Classics label for a while, and the Piano Concerto No. 1 has already had a brief review here. Now available at bargain price, this set comes up against a few old/new competitors, and my comparisons have largely been with Earl Wild with Jascha Horenstein and the RPO on a two disc set: Chandos CHAN10078-79X, as well as the separately available 2 CD set from Bernd Glemser and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra with Anthony Wit on the Naxos label.
From the outset, these concerto recordings make their statement for being on the slower side of serious. Comparing timings with Stephen Hough on Hyperion (also reviewed here) one sees a good deal of additional minutes over entire concertos, which need not necessarily be a bad thing, but the famous opening of the Piano Concerto No. 2 is indeed very weighty indeed. This reminds me a little of a recording by Oleg Marshev on the Danacord label which has similar timings, and is to my mind certainly too slow in parts of the opening movement of this great concerto. Listen to Earl Wild, Rachmaninov himself (review), and Rubinstein (review) in 1946 for that matter, and youíll hear something in the music which makes you want to sing. Yes, a grand symphonic opening for that first movementís opening passages is fine, but what follows in the main theme with Lill is like those giantís footsteps: tomp, tomp, tomp, tomp... The heart is not lifted, the mood is not for hearty life-affirming singing, and the clatter of all those accompanying notes is where the ear is lead, not that soaring melodic miracle. I will agree with most commentators, and can confirm that there is fine playing and exciting swiftness later on, but I know I will always be troubled by that initial melodic statement, and later on there are certain passages which continue this desire to emphasise weight over flight. The Adagio sostenuto second movement is also in a strange kind of slow motion but has its beauty, and the build-up through the development section is very powerful. I love the wit in Horensteinís orchestral opening of the third movement, but BBC National Orchestra of Wales does a fine job too, and John Lillís solo is blistering, though at this stage the suspicion is his piano is a little too close for comfort in the recorded balance, and could do with a good tune. Still, the plusses far outweigh any negatives, and by the end I was sold on this recording, not forgetting my earlier reservations.
CD 1 pairs with the Piano Concerto No. 1 but programmes it second as with the original release. This is a spectacular piece, if less thematically distinctive when compared to the second concerto. Both soloist and orchestra create gorgeous sweeping shapes in the opening Vivace, though there are a few moments of slightly dodgy intonation from the orchestra and the pace drags a little too much too long in places. This is still very nice however, and the middle Andante has a superb expressive warmth, nostalgia and elegy rolled into one, though again the balance of what should be a rich cushion of orchestral sound is covered more often than not by secondary notes from the piano. The orchestra has more impact in the Allegro vivace finale and this is very well played indeed by all concerned. Lots of little details are however wiped out by the soloist Ė something which doesnít reflect a realistic concert hall experience. There are places where the piano should blend with the orchestra, almost fulfilling the function of a baroque continuo, adding sparkle and highlighting harmony, but these magical effects are lost with the in-your-face balance Ė thrilling at times it has to be admitted, but ultimately wearing as well.
Not that youíre likely to be playing through this whole set in one go, but the programme is nicely broken at the beginning of CD 2 with the Piano Sonata No. 2. This tour de force is played with magnificent heroism by John Lill, not with quite the variety of colour achieved by Freddy Kempff on BIS-CD-1042, but still with plenty of panache, bags of technique and a fine Russian feel Ė you can hear the great cathedral bells clattering at times. If I have any criticism it might be where too much weight is given to transitional passages or secondary voices: the Ďsinging voiceí in the second movement but also elsewhere, is equal or sometimes even weaker than the rest of the sonic/musical picture. This can generate stirring effects but can also become something of a wall of sound at times, and the impact of true climactic moments is weakened as a result.
Iíve been listening most often recently to the Martha Argerich/Riccardo Chailly Piano Concerto No. 3 as part of the ĎThe Collection Vol.4í on the Decca label (see review also review). I have to say this is in a different league to the Lill/Otaka combination. This is by no means a weak performance, but Argerich sets up both anticipation and fearsomely magnificent rewards that there are alas few alternatives which present much by way of competition. There is a good deal which is pretty pedestrian in Lillís Allegro ma non tanto, and for some reason the transitional passages are allowed to dawdle rather tragically. Itís like lingering too long over costume jewellery in the diamond museum and then finding you donít have enough puff to concentrate when you reach the real stuff. There are of course some magnificent moments, but I found myself becoming fidgety without the Argerich fire, impatient and dangerous at times, but also able to conjure surprises from the least promising material through sheer force of personality. The slow Intermezzo also has gorgeousness aplenty, but you wonít have anything like the cataclysmic effect of Argerichís entry or the sheer grip and broiling fizz under those seemingly simple notes. The fireworks of the Finale are done well by Lill and the BBC orchestra and there are some tremendous effects, the piano still perhaps a bit too large for the orchestra in terms of balance but thatís also an issue with the Argerich recording, originally on Philips. I love the transition toward those quasi-scherzo pianistic musings at 3:24; with the brass blended to sound like some kind of incredibly massive reed organ. The pacing and shape of this movement is broad, but works the best in this concerto, with an entirely convincing trajectory towards climax and conclusion.
Bernd Glemserís Naxos recordings of these concerti are roughly contemporary with those of John Lill, and very fine they are too. Glemser and Wit strike quite a fine balance between reverential refinement and spontaneous sounding lyrical ecstasy, and the recordings also have a more natural balance between orchestra and soloist. With John Lillís fine performance of the Piano Concerto No. 4 this alchemy is slightly lessened with the more brittle piano sound, but while the BBC National Orchestra of Wales has developed even further in the last 10 years and more as evidenced by extremely fine recordings on the Chandos label, they still respond to Tadaaki Otakaís direction with fine sonority and comparable character to the Polish NRSO. The beautiful Largo is gorgeous in this recording, and the concerto is also well paced in the outer movements, with all spectacular moments present and correct. CD 3 also brings us the Variations on a Theme of Corelli all on one track. If youíre still looking for bargain alternatives then Idil Biret has both this work and the Piano Sonata No. 2 on Naxos 8.550349. Biretís overall timing is not hugely different to Lillís in the Variations, but she has a lighter touch in some of the swifter variations, making Lill sound a bit choppy at times by comparison. Her recording is also individually tracked per variation, which is handy for study. Lillís performance is very good however, and with plenty of variety in character between variations it can stand up to close scrutiny and a good deal of untroubled listening pleasure.
The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a tremendously popular work, and is turned out with gloriously lively playing and a good deal of depth and poetry on this Nimbus recording. Again all of the numbers are on a single track. Turning back one more time to Bernd Glemser on the Naxos recording, the Rhapsody also being paired with the Piano Concerto No. 4 one can hear a little more how the orchestra needs to be an equal partner to the pianist, though even here the piano is a good deal more Ďpresentí than the strings in particular so honours are about equal in terms of recorded balance for once. Amazingly for its age, Earl Wildís 1965 recording has as much if not more detail in this piece than either of the Naxos or Nimbus recordings, and he shows the way in a blistering version which undercuts both Lill and Glemser by a good few minutes. Of course, we all dive for that wonderful Variation XVIII, in which Rachmaninov inverts Paganiniís theme to create something fantastic and new. If anything, Wild and Horenstein are a bit too pushing with the tempo for their own good Ė the tune needs to breathe just a little more to have us swooning properly. This is something John Lill and Tadaaki Otaka allow to expand in fine style, and there shouldnít be a dry eye in the house afterwards.
Time to sum up, and, despite my niggles and remarks, Iíve lived happily with these recordings during quite a few weeks of summer travel Ė which we all know means waiting around for hours in transit: an ideal time to absorb large chunks of recorded musical experience. This set is not perfect. I would have preferred more intensity sometimes, which can be a side effect of broad tempi Ė also something to which you might find yourself needing to become accustomed in some movements. The piano is too imposing in the recorded balance in general to the detriment of the orchestra, whose exquisite detail is frequently hidden. John Lillís playing is excellent, but the masses of inner notes can swell to overtake melodic lines, and greater colour and subtlety can be found elsewhere for a price. What we do have here is a real bargain of all four piano concertos, the famous Rhapsody and some decent chunks of Rachmaninovís solo repertoire.
Iíve not mentioned a few alternatives for these concertos which compete at this price range, including ones with classic status, such as those with Vladimir Ashkenazy and Andrť Previn on the Decca label, the only reason being I didnít have these to hand at time of writing. Of the three complete versions mentioned here Iím still torn between all of them. Earl Wildís is perhaps the most musically satisfying, while Bernd Glemser is most consistent throughout, though he can be a tad bland at times. This Nimbus set does have a great deal going for it, and Iíve had the luxury of being able to go back and Ďdip iní since doing all that critical listening, each time Iíve found myself wanting to play whole works and finishing happier than when I started, so the prognosis is good for a longer-term relationship. My colleagues have already made this release a Bargain of the Month, and you wonít find me disagreeing with this conclusion. The very fact that Iím torn between this and my chosen alternatives has to put John Lill up there with the rest of the competition, and on the strength of that Iíll just say, for the price, that this set will do very nicely indeed.
Not perfect, but will still do very nicely thank you.