Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40 [26:38]
Maurice RAVEL (1873-1937)
Piano Concerto in G [21:37]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Rhapsody in Blue [18:04]
Daria Rabotkina (piano)
Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Sladkovsky
rec. live, 15-18 September, 2014, Saydashev State Big Concert Hall, Kazan, Tatarstan, Russia

This is the type of CD we reviewers dread: totally unknown artists, on an obscure record label, performing all the big hits. Usually the review goes something like this: you explain that there are already a hundred recordings of these piano concertos, and you compliment the performers but indicate that they are not “ready for primetime.” It’s no fun. But not this time. This is completely different, because this time, the results are terrific. This CD is so much better than I expected that it’s legitimately shocking.

The best performance comes first. Daria Rabotkina is an extraordinary Rachmaninov pianist, alive to his many moods and the autumnal inner sadness of his Fourth Concerto. At the same time, the technical challenges pose no great difficulty for her: this is a very clean live performance. Truth be told, they seem to have stitched together live performances from multiple nights, although you can still hear the audience coughing.

That wouldn’t mean much, except that the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra is equally good. This Rachmaninov performance bristles with energy, especially the jumpy finale, with virtuosic playing from the woodwinds and brass. The recording emphasizes this punchy lively performance; no muffled percussion here.

Maurice Ravel’s piano concerto might seem riskier for an orchestra located 800 kilometers east of Moscow (and 3,500 kilometers east of Paris). But the virtues of emphatic percussion and personality-filled woodwind and trumpet soloists are huge assets in this score, and conductor Alexander Sladkovsky’s big idea, ending the first movement on a gigantic accelerando, is devilish good fun. Rabotkina is once again on point. The toccata-like passages of the first and last movements stretch her abilities to very near their limits, although I mean this in a good way. She never does lose control, so all we are left with is a thrilling reminder of just how incredibly difficult an artistic endeavor this piano concerto is. In a way, hearing Rabotkina’s limits emphasizes just how talented she is.

Rabotkina is at her best in Ravel’s first movement’s second subject, and similar moments of calm in the Rachmaninov. The Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue is the least interesting performance on the disc, in part because the performers use the later full-orchestra arrangement rather than the original jazz band version. But there’s still great stuff here: Sladkovsky sets some really energetic tempos, and Daria Rabotkina handles the jazz idiom of her solos better than many more prominent classical musicians. Many classically-trained pianists think that playing a jazz piece means they can indulge in as much wacky ornamentation and tempo-changing as their imagination conceives, a pitfall Rabotkina avoids. There is a bit of improvisation, but it’s well-thought-out and serves as a linking device between two episodes.

This CD might be hard to find, and it comes with applause after each concerto. If you’re one who seeks out talented new pianists and artists from unusual places, I can give this disc a very high recommendation. Let’s hope Daria Rabotkina, and the Tatarstan orchestra, are given more chances to prove their abilities.

Brian Reinhart