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Sergei Vasil’yevich RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in d minor Op.30 [40:46]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in g minor Op.16 [30:58]
Yuja Wang (piano)
Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela/Gustavo Dudamel
rec. live, Sala Simón Bolívar, Centro de Acción Social por la Música, Caravas, Venezuela, February 2013. DDD.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4791304 [71:41]

The penny-in-the-slot expectation would be that such a combination of youthful musicians would produce fiery performances, perhaps over-the-top, of these two virtuoso works. That was my first thought, given that I hadn’t heard Yuja Wang’s earlier recording of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and Paganini Rhapsody (DG 4779308 - review). On that earlier recording Yuja Wang had the support of an older head, Vladimir Ashkenazy; here she is joined by Gustavo Dudamel, not always noted for restraint.
 
In the event the Rachmaninov Third Concerto opens very quietly in this performance - if anything, my initial feeling was that all concerned were holding back a little too much. When Wang and Dudamel turn up the heat, however, the effect is all the more powerful given their initial restraint. I see that William Hedley made similar comments on that earlier recording, quoting from the programme notes to the effect that Wang had studied Rachmaninov’s own performances and admired the comparative restraint which he shows. It’s one disadvantage of listening to certain downloads that they don’t come with the booklet, so I don’t know if she makes the same comments about her performance of the Third.
 
Look at the timings and you see that Wang and Dudamel are consistently faster than one of my benchmarks for the Rachmaninov concertos, Vladimir Askenazy and André Previn on a budget twofer (Decca Duo 4448392: I listened to the older release of Piano Concerto No.3 and five Preludes, 4177642), but they are slightly slower than my other benchmark, the award-winning Stephen Hough and Andrew Litton (Hyperion CDA67501/2: Recording of the Month - review - review - review or CDA30014/2 - DL Roundup December 2011/2). On another justly revered set of the concertos Earl Wild and Jascha Horenstein (Chandos mid-price CHAN10078 or, less expensive but download only, CHAN7114 - DL Roundup December 2011/2) are faster still in all three movements.
 
Listening to Wild and Horenstein soon after hearing Wang it does sound as if they are pushing the music a little hard, but that’s the danger of the ‘Building a Library’ approach, getting one recording fixed in your head then hearing the differences exaggerated when listening to another. Hough and Litton, at almost exactly the same tempo, don’t sound at all hurried. Play Wild and Hough first, though, and Wang sounds rather too relaxed. Take each on its own terms and they all work well.
 
Paradoxically, in the second movement, where Wild is much faster on paper than any other recording that I’ve listed (8:43 against Hough’s 9:55, Wang’s 10:38 and Ashkenazy’s 12:07), he and Horenstein give the music as much room to breathe as anyone else.
 
If Wild’s faster tempo can be made to work in the second movement, the expectation would be that Wang/Dudamel and Ashkenazy/Previn sound too dreamy. Yes, they both sound dreamier but, after all, the tone of this movement is pensive rather than sombre.
 
It’s a virtue rather than a shortcoming that Wang and Dudamel never push the music too hard or too fast. Even in the finale they allow the music to yearn where appropriate. If it’s a warhorse that you’re looking for, seek elsewhere. I’m sure the comparative restraint is not due to any problems that Wang has with the phenomenally difficult solo part or the Simón Bolívar Orchestra with Rachmaninov’s dense orchestration, a slightly facile suggestion that I’ve seen made elsewhere. Where oomph is required, all concerned on DG can and do apply it.
 
The ideal coupling for the Rachmaninov Third is his Second, though very few recordings, apart from complete sets, offer this combination. If DG were to re-couple Wang’s new recording with the earlier Second - just feasible on a well-filled CD - I think they would have a best-seller on their hands. The Prokofiev coupling is not on the face of it the most logical but the coupling works well in these performances.
 
Ashkenazy and Previn are again the chief rivals in the Prokofiev concertos (Nos. 1-5, Decca Duo 4525882) alongside strong competition from Horacio Gutierrez and Neeme Järvi (another complete set, Chandos CHAN8938, or Nos. 2 and 3, CHAN8889), the recent complete set from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Gianandrea Noseda (CHAN10802 - see DL News 2014/1) and Freddy Kempf with Andrew Litton (Nos. 2 and 3, BIS-SACD-1820 - review). The comparison with Kempf, another youthful soloist, is particularly apt. In a brief review in DL Roundup June 2010 I thought this the best recording of Prokofiev’s Piano Concertos since Richter’s No.5 (DG) and Argerich’s 1 and 3 (EMI, now Warner) and I still marginally prefer it to the new DG. NB: the passionato.com link no longer applies - download now from eclassical.com (mp3, 16- and 24-bit lossless, with pdf booklet).
 
There’s pretty close agreement about timings for all four movements - as in Rachmaninov Ashkenazy and Previn are generally the slowest and Jorge Bolet (1953, with the Cincinnati SO and Thor Johnson on Naxos Classical Archives) the fastest: Gutierrez, Wang, Bavouzet and Kempf mainly fall between the two, though Kempf takes the third movement Intermezzo almost as fast as Bolet - sparkling rather than menacing, as Dominy Clements puts it in his review, but I liked the effect.
 
In theory, if Kempf’s time of 5:56 works well, Gutierrez and Wang (6:40 and 6:35 respectively) ought to sound too slow, but they don’t. There’s plenty of the menace in the new recording that you might find slightly lacking in the Kempf and the Wang/Dudamel finale, where they really let rip - even faster than that Bolet recording and matching Gutierrez - wins the day.
 
The download from 7digital.com comes in good quality mp3 at the full 320kb/s, with sound which falls very little short of the 16-bit lossless versions from Chandos and BIS. To match them or the CD you need pay rather more, almost as much as for the CD, to download it in lossless sound from prestoclassical.co.uk, with pdf booklet. Amazon.co.uk also offer the booklet but their downloads are usually at a lower bit-rate, around 256kb/s. At the time of writing the 7digital download is offered at a ridiculously inexpensive £1.29.
 
The two 24-bit recordings of the Prokofiev, from BIS (Kempf) and Chandos (Jean-Efflam Bavouzet) are extremely good. Though they come at a premium, the BIS, which on disc is a hybrid SACD, still costs less than the price of the equivalent CDs and the Chandos only a little more, and audiophiles should find the extra worth paying.
 
The recordings were made before a live audience, silent apart from tumultuous applause after each concerto - I know that will rule this recording out for some, but it’s not extended or intrusive. The idiot who shouts ‘bravo’ fractionally before the end of the music was, fortunately, otherwise occupied on this occasion.
 
I very much enjoyed hearing this new recording. Noting that it’s already been made Editor’s Choice elsewhere, you may well think that I’ve been a trifle mean not to place it even closer to the top of my list for either concerto. I did consider making it a Recording of the Month - it strongly challenges the very strong competition in both concertos but ultimately it’s Ashkenazy/Previn, Wild/Horenstein or Hough/Litton that will continue to be my choices for the Rachmaninov, especially as all three come with the other concertos as couplings. It’s still Askenazy/Previn, Gutierrez/Järvi and Kempf/Litton in Prokofiev. Bavouzet and Noseda give a fine account, too, better than I may have implied in my very short mention in DL News 2014/1. All four offer more Prokofiev as couplings, three of them his complete piano concertos, but if the pairing of two quite different Russian concertos appeals, you really won’t go far wrong at all with the new DG.
 
Brian Wilson 

Masterwork Index: Rachmaninov piano concerto 3

Review copy courtesy of 7digital.com



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