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Serge RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Suite No. 1 (Fantaisie-tableaux), Op. 5 (1893) [22:18]
Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos, Op. 17 (1900-01) [22:40]
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (1940-42) [33:22]
Louis Lortie (piano)
Hélène Mercier (piano)
rec. 5-7 December 2014, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk
CHANDOS CHAN10882 [78:34]

I much enjoyed Louis Lortie together with Hélène Mercier on a recent Chandos disc of music by Poulenc (review), though it’s been quite a while since they appeared together in their Ravel programme on CHAN 8905 and Mozart/Schubert on CHAN 9162. Looking very fine in dark blue livery, this CD is a nice object to acquire. The documentation is very full, telling us the serial numbers of the Fazioli instruments used, and even giving us the names of the page turners.

This is an excellent Rachmaninoff programme, taking us from the high romance of the relatively early Suite No. 1 to the composer’s last opus numbered work, the Symphonic Dances. The Suite No. 1 is a very fine work, and this duo plays gorgeously in that sighing third movement Les larmes. The spectacular finale, Pâques rings out spectacularly, the powerful tone of the well paired pianos delivering a remarkable listening experience.

The Suite No. 2 was composed on the crest of a wave of energy following Rachamninoff’s second piano concerto, and the music of the opening Alla marcia is compulsively rhythmic and harmonically rich and full in texture. Fleetness of touch hallmarks the following Valse, taken at full tilt by Lortie and Mercier but without sacrificing expressiveness. The Romance offers a little break from all that energy, and mellowness takes over from clarity to heighten the contrast of mood. The final Tarantelle is another musical restorative and played with great verve and a genuine sense of joy in this recording.

The Symphonic Dances is also given a fine performance here, Lortie and Mercier taking their time over expressive points in the first movement and letting the development unfold with a sense of ethereal wonder that is helped by the recording quality. I haven’t mentioned this before but as it is most noticeable here I can’t help thinking there is some part of the process which makes these pianos sound, well, ‘processed’ in some way. There’s a funny vagueness between the channels and just a bit too much reverberation for absolutely natural results. You may not notice this through loudspeakers, but there’s a woolly bloom to the mid-range through my second-mortgage headphones which isn’t ideal.

Never mind, the waltzing rhythms of the Andante con moto second movement keep their secretive nature, Lortie and Mercier holding up a ruminative and speculative mood, searching into the music rather than giving way to superficiality. The final movement delivers that ultimate release as the notes and high-impact chords chase each other out of the darker moods at its heart into a rousing conclusion.

The First Suite might be compared with Martha Argerich and Lilya Zilberstein live in Lugano in 2008 in one of those desirable EMI/Warner box sets (see review). There is a small amount of moaning here and there through the right channel early on but this is a remarkable performance and more passionate and intense than Lortie/Mercier. The final Pâques will have you gasping in awe. The Second Suite is one of those works Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire made their own back in 1983 on the Philips label, now part of ‘the collection 4’ box set on Decca 478 2746. This recording has a crisper sound than the Chandos disc, and Argerich and Freire are very hard to beat in this field, with an explosive, edgy drive and expressive synergy that frees the music into something which has already leapt off the page and into realms that stick in the mind way beyond the listening experience. You may of course prefer something a little less wild, in which case Lortie/Mercier make for a tastier box of chocolates.

The same goes for the Symphonic Dances, two versions of which can be found on Argerich’s Deutsche Grammophon ‘the collection 3’ (see review), of which the live Salzburg recording is a must (see single-disc review). This recording is much more up close and personal with masses of dynamic range and a performance that seems almost confrontational in its life-force when compared with the Chandos disc at hand.

This is a very appealing programme and Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier deliver very fine performances indeed. My first impression in putting on the disc for a first impression was, ‘what have they done to the piano sound’, but you can get used to the richly upholstered effect after a while. I’m sorry to have wheeled Argerich out for comparisons on each piece, but her recordings are something of an exemplary reference when it comes to this repertoire. If your ears haven’t been pre-loaded in this way then you should find this Chandos recording an inspiration. If you are prepared to hunt around and prefer the spelling ‘Rachmaninov’ then Argerich’s versions are worth seeking out.

Dominy Clements



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