Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op.18 (1901) [33:48]
Artur Rubinstein (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
DTS HD-MA stereo and 4.0 surround, reviewed in surround
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFER BD-A [33:48] (no catalogue number)
It goes almost without saying that this is a superb performance of Rachmaninov's most played concerto. Rubinstein does not put a foot wrong and Ormandy's direction of the orchestra is similarly top class. Whilst there are countless alternative performances, all of them coupled with much more music than this (very short measure of under 34 minutes) if this pianist and this conductor are who you want, and the price of $25 plus postage does not put you off, then buy it.
However, Rubinstein recorded this work four times with other equally prominent orchestras and conductors and a quick glance online shows that all four are available including this one at lower cost and with extra concertos. Ergo this issue can only be justified if the sound is special; after all it is a 'high definition surround recording at 24/192'. Well, yes, sort of. The facts are these: HDTT issues are available in various forms, as downloads and as physical discs. They are derived from commercially issued 7˝ ips pre-recorded consumer reel to reel tapes, either 2 Track or 4 Track, from the so called "golden age" of recording. This issue is from an RCA Discrete Quadraphonic 4-track tape, according to HDTT's website. The disc reviewed is a standard Blu-ray Audio disc which carries the programme in both 4 channel and 2 channel mixes. The sound in 4 channels sounds very little different from that in 2 channels, indeed I found the stereo a bit less unconvincing than the quadraphonic. Both give a very decent piano sound considering the age of the master.
It has to be said that Artur Rubinstein was one of the performers worst supported by his recording company, for very little of his recorded repertoire was treated to state-of-the-art technology. The best I know of is the Chopin Ballades now on RCA Living Stereo SACD 82876 61396 2. We collectors always assumed that the transfer to LP was poorly handled and that the master tapes were much better. The Chopin issue supported that view.
This issue taken from a commercial tape, not a studio master, leaves the listener none the wiser, because it displays an indistinct orchestral accompaniment which seems often to be coming through a blanket, and a piano that, as noted, is forward and fairly clear but nothing special. We have to guess how well the famously splendid Philadelphia sound was accompanying him because it is mostly so vague. I have to note at least one recording of considerably greater age that shows this one up as really rather poor. Byron Janis and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Doráti recorded the Second Concerto in April 1960. This was reissued on a three channel SACD from Mercury Living Presence 470-639-2 and sounds spectacularly clear and dynamic in all respects and the performance is equally magnificent. As if that were not enough the single disc also includes the huge Third Concerto and a couple of preludes. I rest my case.