Joseph Moog, age 24 and looking on the booklet photograph like a dashing star of early talking-era movies, is about as technically impressive a pianist as can be found in that age bracket. He has already recorded two solo recitals for the Claves label which showed a truly adventurous spirit - Jonathan Woolf found one “audacious” but dry. Now for Onyx he offers the unceasingly renowned Rachmaninov Third Concerto with the Fourth Concerto by Anton Rubinstein. The latter, which is played first, was the template from which Rachmaninov - and, one suspects, Tchaikovsky - worked, and this coupling makes the stylistic influence obvious. Rubinstein’s Fourth had, before the Rach-Tchaik duo stormed through concert halls everywhere, been one of the most popular and most performed concertos around, from its completion in 1872 through the first decades of the last century.
Moog’s excellent advocacy reminds us why. It has the great romantic concerto requirements — a torrent of notes and chords, ample chances for the soloists to show off, moments of great tenderness including, surprisingly, the first movement’s tiny cadenza. It also boasts melodic material far more memorable than one usually finds in the “forgotten romantic concerto” bracket. Yes, it does sound a bit old-fashioned, but it’s so grand! Moog brings the poise of a major talent to moments like the first movement’s tempestuous coda, the andante’s touching main theme, and the major-key twist at concerto’s end, a passage on which we can imagine Rachmaninov taking copious notes.
Not many recordings of this concerto exist (pity); chief among them are Marc-André Hamelin’s on Hyperion and two from the Naxos family — Joseph Banowetz on Marco Polo and Larissa Shilovskaya on the now-defunct label Amadis, which listed for US $2.99 and was surprisingly excellent. Where Moog has an advantage over the Marco Polo and Amadis offerings is the capability of the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic, which executes its parts with great enthusiasm and technical skill; I just wish the woodwind solos at 1:40 in the finale weren’t buried under the piano in the balance. Hamelin’s might be the superior performance in the long run, but there is no shame in losing a race to Marc-André Hamelin.
Then comes Rachmaninov’s immortal Third. This is quite a brisk performance, after its composer’s own style; the first movement is only seconds off Stephen Hough’s speedy time. The result is a few pages where I’m reminded unpleasantly of the remark from Amadeus: “too many notes.” But Moog undoubtedly has the technique, and even if his handling of the first movement’s more tender episodes are a little awkward, the overall feel is solid, serious, non-indulgent, with an architectural integrity that helps the work along. This isn’t sentimental, sappy playing, and it’s refreshing for that. The first movement’s (revised, shorter) cadenza includes some ear-catching individual touches which make the initial statement of the main theme more improvisatory than usual. The adagio is faster than usual but there is no great loss in lyricism; Moog’s playing at the climax halfway through might be described as heroic in character. The finale suits soloist and orchestra to a tee, and it’s a romp - the highlight of the performance.
So if you love the Rachmaninov concerto but don’t know the Rubinstein, you pretty much have to consider this. The Hamelin comes with a similarly little-known coupling, but Nicholas Moog’s playing in the younger composer’s warhorse will appeal to those who like the piece polished, steely, and unsentimental. The orchestra is very fine, albeit stuck behind the piano somewhat in the sound picture. Not essential unless you need or love the Rubinstein, but this is certainly very good.