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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Music for Two Pianos
Symphonic Dances (1940) [31.05]
Suite No. 1 Op. 5 (Fantaisie–Tableaux) (1893) [23.21]
Suite No. 2 Op. 17 (1901) [24.08]
Natalia Lavrova and Vassily Primakov (piano duo)
rec. Stratton, Vermont, USA, 2-4 October 2013
LP CLASSICS 1019 [79.16]

The playing of the piano duo, Natalia Lavrova and Vassily Primakov, is quite inspired: technically secure, poetic and beautifully nuanced. The incredibly lucid and nimble-fingered young couple are exceptionally sensitive to the music, to each other’s line and they blend so well. Their readings have strength, delicacy and understanding of, and sympathy for the Rachmaninov idiom. They are served with warm, first class recorded sound allowing great clarity and perspective.

The young couple are Juilliard-trained concert pianists. They began their training in Moscow and descend from the Great Russian Conservatory tradition. The fold-out flat cardboard case has pictures of the two pianists’ romantic costumes that appear to have been specially designed to create a mood for this music. Exhaustive notes on the works including the inspirational verses for Suite No. 1 are available on the LP classics web site.

The duo’s talent is immediately apparent when you listen to their sparkling, lucid rendering of the opening ‘Barcarolle’ of the First Suite. Their reading of Suite No. 1 compares very favourably with that of Vladimir Ashkenazy and André Previn (on Double Decca 2 CD set 444 845-2 which contained all the works on this current LP Classics release plus the Études-tableaux, Russian Rhapsody and Variations on a theme by Corelli. Alas it is currently unavailable although some copies can still be sought from various suppliers on Amazon.

Tchaikovsky had been greatly impressed by Rachmaninov’s famous C sharp minor Prelude Op. 3 and had promised to attend the premiere of the First Suite but died before the first performance. Each of the First Suite’s four movements is prefaced by verses from Lermontov, Byron, Tyoutchev and Khomyakov respectively. The first movement glistens and sparkles as it intimates the passage of a gondola through the Venetian lagoons while at the same time offering impressions of love shared and “passion slain”. Although Ashkenazy and Previn illuminate their reading with more expressive shading, I was just that bit more impressed with the Lavrova/Primakov duo’s sparkle. The second ‘Byron’ movement is a slowly developing nocturnal romantic evocation as “The nightingale’s high note is heard”. Here the newcomers score with a reading of greater subtlety, their yearning turning to great passion - and that nightingale’s chirruping is so much more convincing. The Decca team score more heavily in the slow and melancholy third movement “Tears” where Tyoutchev’s poem tells of a lover who mourns ceaselessly and dejectedly. Ashkenazy and Previn’s surge of multiple bells is a weave of beautifully realised counterpoint. For the concluding movement ‘Easter’, the bells sing out jubilantly in the hands of Lavrova and Primakov “exulting in that Holy victory”. Rachmaninov’s insistently rousing music keenly evokes the spirit of the concluding Khomyakov verse. The new recording has the edge with dignified but powerfully jubilant bells.

The Second Suite came after Rachmaninov’s recall to creative life by Dr Dahl’s hypnosis. Much of the material was spare music from Rachmaninov’s enduringly popular Second Piano Concerto. The first movement opens defiantly and is marked Alla Marcia; the second movement is a vivacious waltz with a typical refulgent Rachmaninov melody; the third is a romance – passion unleashed - again with a gorgeous tune; and the final movement is an exciting Tarantella that offers every opportunity to display virtuosity. Generally I was more impressed with the Lavrova/Primakov’s reading of this Second Suite; the Decca Tarantella being the only movement that excited me more. The two central movements in the hands of Lavrova/Primakov reveal so much more - their Valse second movement so tender and exquisitely nuanced; and their ‘Romance’ more lovingly articulated.

The most significant work on this CD is the two-piano transcription of the Symphonic Dances which Rachmaninov himself made at the same time as he was creating his orchestral version. Piano reductions of complex, heavily-scored orchestral works might be regarded by some as having limited appeal because of a concern that there might be some loss of impact and colour. The Previn/Ashkenazy reading of the opening movement ‘Midday’ for me loses very little, maybe not surprisingly considering their experience in front of orchestras. Again their third dance, ‘Midnight’ follows the spirit of the orchestral version in much the same way with an exciting opening, a thrilling, sinister conclusion and a spacious, slow middle section that is very sexy and with a bewitching sensual languor. Lavrova/Primakov substitute a freer, occasionally not so attractive approach especially in the opening part of their ‘Midday’ and at certain points in their ‘Midnight’ although it has to be said that they give this last movement a finely shaded and thoughtful performance. Where they do score over Previn and Ashkenazy is in their ‘Twilight’ with a beautifully lilting and graceful reading of this central waltz movement. In comparison the Decca team’s treatment has a less attractive heavier tread.

In view of my diffidence about their outer Dances, I hesitated in awarding this review ‘Recording of the Month’ status but considering the duo’s Two Suites and the Waltz movement of the Symphonic Dances, I brushed my hesitancy aside.

Extraordinary virtuosity and sensitivity of this talented young piano duo make this CD practically irresistible but I do have a few reservations about their Symphonic Dances; for this work I favour the Previn/Ashkenazy Decca alternative.

Ian Lace