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Sergey Vasil'yevich RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1 (1891, rev. 1917) [26:13]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909) [39:28]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1901) [32:45]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40 (1926, rev. 1941) [24:48]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934) [22:41]
Valentina Lisitsa (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Michael Francis
rec. 12-13 September 2009 (concertos 1-2), 5-7 December 2009 (concertos 3-4), 8 March 2010 (Rhapsody), No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, UK
DECCA 478 4890 [65:43 + 80:14]

Ukrainian-born Valentina Lisitsa really is a child of our time; despite a promising start to her playing career circumstances conspired to force a premature retirement from the concert platform. However, she was dissuaded from such a precipitate move and posted her first YouTube video in 2007; the rest, as they say, is history. She’s new to me - I’d not seen her video of the Chopin Études, which did remarkably well when it appeared online - and all the publicity suggested that her Rachmaninov would be rather special too.
There are several high-profile sets of the Rachmaninov concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody, among them the Earl Wild/Jascha Horenstein/RPO box from the 1960s (Cha ndos), Vladimir Ashkenazy and André Previn’s from the 1970s (Decca) and, much more recently, Leif Ove Andsnes and Antonio Pappano’s cycle (EMI) and Stephen Hough’s Andrew Litton/Dallas Symphony series (Hyperion). Ashkenazy and Lisitsa have the benefit of the LSO in good form - the Andsnes set is split between the LSO and the Berlin Philharmonic - with generally decent recordings to match.
Returning to the Wild accounts after some years I was reminded of how testosterone-charged they are. These recordings - big, bold and very forwardly balanced - have not worn well; some may find this an exciting and tempestuous partnership but there’s a relentlessness here that’s very fatiguing after a while. By contrast the Hough/Litton recordings are soft-grained and the playing and sonics are more appealing in their mix of poetry and power. Ditto Andsnes and Pappano. That said, neither is an unequivocal success, which isn’t that surprising as ‘complete’ traversals seldom are.
With such caveats in mind Yevgeny Sudbin’s BIS recording of the first concerto with Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra strikes a very good balance between energy and insight; this has all the makings of a compelling and consistent set, which I hope will emerge with more alacrity than Noriko Ogawa’s did. Her Rachmaninov has had a mixed reception, as suggested by Chris Howell’s lukewarm response to Nos. 1, 4 and the Paganini Rhapsody (review). No doubt listeners will have preferred versions of individual works - Michelangeli’s No. 4, for instance - and I always tend towards the mix-and-match approach rather than the one-set solution. That said, the latter are often keenly priced, so one or two disappointments won’t necessarily be a deal-breaker.

First impressions of the Lisitsa set are favourable. Some may find the opening to the Piano Concerto No. 1 a tad self-effacing, but it soon becomes clear that Lisitsa’s is a reading of unusual sensitivity and charm. Conductor Michael Francis and the LSO certainly provide thrilling weight and emphasis as the work progresses, which only underlines this pianist’s intensely poetic utterances. What pleases me most is that there’s no sign of self-aggrandising virtuosity here; indeed, there’s a lightness and spontaneity to her playing that’s matched at every turn by luminous sounds from the LSO. The Andante had me holding my breath, such are its moments of transporting loveliness, and the warm, velvety recording - made in the legendary Studio No. 1 at Abbey Road - is very seductive too.
What a heart-melting performance of the first concerto this is; surely it would it be tempting fate to expect the same from its partner on CD 1, the rhapsodic third? Well, I’m delighted to report that Lisitsa’s control of rhythm, touch and phrasing in Piano Concerto No. 3 is just as miraculous, and the liquid Allegro ma non tanto races, swirls and eddies with the best of them. The LSO are pin-sharp in their responses and there’s a powerful sense of the players sitting in rapt attention during the solos. Lisitsa’s is not a big, muscular sound but it is a lithe, well-toned one, and she lights up this most familiar concerto in ways I scarcely thought possible.
Francis is a sympathetic and supple partner in this ravishing enterprise, and his control of tempi and dynamics are well judged at all times. The dreamily effusive Intermezzo is so economically done, and what some may regard as an air of containment - too much reserve, perhaps - just adds to the delicious inner tension of this performance. I’ve rarely heard these music-box moments dance with such light steps, or the sections segue so seamlessly. Again, some may find the Finale too reticent, but what it lacks in sheer breadth it more than makes up for in beguiling shape, detail and colour.
The second disc opens with a sonorous and imposing account of the Piano Concerto No. 2. There’s no shortage of sweep, and the free-flowing elements at the heart of the first movements are most persuasively presented. That said, Lisitsa rises magnificently to the challenge of the noisier passages, the quieter ones a telling counterpoint to what’s gone before. It’s a measure of this pianist’s magnetic presence that the sense of being in a concert hall, of witnessing a live event, is so palpable, not least in that yearning, oh-so-songful Adagio sostenuto. The LSO strings play like angels here, and the dialogue between soloist and orchestra is finely poised throughout.
Any reservations? Perhaps one or two of those Brahmsian horn entries could be tidier and the pulse, which often falters in this central movement, is steady if not always strong. The same could be said of the Allegro scherzando, although Lisitsa’s lyrical gifts are never in doubt. Tuttis are suitably forceful but never overbearing and Francis keeps the orchestra on a tight rein; as for Lisitsa she rhapsodises but rarely rambles, and the concerto ends with all the brio one could wish.
The mercurial Fourth Concerto gets a decent if not entirely memorable reading, and the LSO provide plenty of punch when required. Occasionally one senses a worrying loss of focus - the soloist is apt to wander and the hitherto crisp sound is rather congested at times - and for once I found myself thinking Lisitsa and Francis could do much better than this. Still, it’s not a bad performance, just not as caught-on-the-wing-wonderful as Nos. 1, 3 and, to a large extent, No. 2. As for the Paganini Rhapsody it’s a major disappointment; it’s not as sharply drawn as the best, or as warmly recorded, and all too often I longed for more colour and contrast.
Lisitsa really shines in the first and third concertos and the second is pretty impressive too, but for some reason the remaining works - perhaps more opaque than the others - just don’t respond as readily to her innately lyrical approach. Inexplicably the sound isn’t consistent either; indeed, the Rhapsody is very bright in the treble and any sense of presence seems to have evaporated entirely. No: real joy resides in the first disc, in which we encounter a composer of rare tenderness and vulnerability, of great passion bridled only to gallop away in those glorious tuttis.
I had started to think that if anyone could rescue these warhorses from the knacker’s yard it would be Lisitsa. Perhaps that was asking too much - older, more experienced pianists haven’t managed that either - but I’d snap up this twofer for the revelatory first disc alone. Now if the second had lived up to that initial promise Lisitsa would be in very exalted company indeed.
Lisitsa’s is a delightful and engaging talent; I predict great things for her.
Dan Morgan  

Masterwork Index: Rachmaninov piano concertos