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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto no.1 in F sharp minor op.1 (1891 rev. 1917) [28:44]
Piano Concerto no.4 in G minor op.40 (1926 rev. 1941) [27:04]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini op. 43 (1934) [24:48]
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Owain Arwel Hughes
rec. June 1998 (op.40), November 1998 (op.43), June 2001 (op.1), Malmö Concert Hall, Sweden
BIS-CD-975 [81:44]

Experience Classicsonline

Ogawa’s playing is effortlessly fluent, limpidly clear in its delineation of Rachmaninov’s multi-tiered textures, bold and forceful where necessary while leaving an abiding impression of gentle poetry, naturally musical and free-flowing in her control of tempi and rubato.
I could leave it that. It all depends on what you expect from these concertos. If you believe that Rachmaninov is a “perfect” composer whose work, like Mozart’s or Beethoven’s, is best represented by the most accurate and stylistic realization of the score as possible, then this is what you get. You might feel, though, that Rachmaninov’s concertos are more in the line of Anton Rubinstein’s, D’Albert’s, Scharwenka’s et al, pianist-composers’ vehicles for their own artistry, empty vessels requiring the performer’s personal input to bring them to life. Maybe the supreme examples of their kind, but of their kind nonetheless. In that case you will miss something you will find in Rachmaninov himself, Moiseiwitsch in the Rhapsody and, signally and uniquely, Michelangeli in Concerto 4. This latter provides, without distortion of the musical line, an intense(self-)dramatization of every moment, once-heard never forgotten and hard to live without. The solo flourish leading to the final grand statement of the big theme at the end of the finale, and the peroration itself, are the sort of events that are likely to seem unduly plain-sailing in Ogawa’s agreeable hands. The reverse side of the coin is that, if you find Rachmaninov’s neuroses, his doleful introspection and his hysterical climaxes objectionable, Ogawa may provide a Rachmaninov you can relate to. Her 18th variation in the Rhapsody is typically not a Hollywood blockbuster, though there is genuine warmth of feeling behind it. But I think Moiseiwitsch was better at showing how to strip it of vulgarity while preserving the grease-paint.
Ogawa has been hailed by many - including myself, repeatedly on MusicWeb International - as one of today’s foremost Debussy interpreters. I also thought she got all there was to get out of Tcherepnin’s concertos. Rachmaninov seems to require something she cannot completely supply. But here’s a conundrum. Does this disc, released in 2012, represent the height of Ogawa’s achievement today? Look at the dates. Shortly on the heels of her 1997 coupling of Rachmaninov’s 2nd and 3rd concertos, warmly but not gushingly received, she completed the cycle and there it’s been sitting, dormant, for over a decade. Her Debussy cycle, too, was completed by a 5th volume actually recorded before the 1st. In this case BIS explained that, since volume 5 contained Debussy’s early works, it had been decided to hold it while she recorded the major cycles of Preludes, Images etc. In the present case, I just don’t see what they are playing at. If there were doubts about this disc 11 years ago, why has it surfaced now? Why not give us her latest thoughts on the concertos, which for all I know may answer my reservations expressed above? It is difficult not to wonder if something has not gone badly wrong and Ogawa today for some reason could not match, let alone surpass, these performances, and knows it. Yet her career continues and her Debussy cycle was released in a box containing a newly recorded performance of the Fantaisie that hardly suggests declining powers. All very puzzling. One begins to wonder how many more unreleased Ogawa performances lie in the BIS vaults. Maybe she has already re-recorded the works here, for release around 2030.
Recording is excellent and orchestral support is reliable, but this disc raises questions that will only be answered by new recordings from the artist. 

Christopher Howell 

Masterwork Index: Rachmaninov Piano concertos & Paganini variations























































































































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