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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1900-01) [34:52]
Cinq Morceaux de fantaisie [19:45]
Vocalise† [6:07]
Two Pieces for 6 Hands‡ [5:52]
Alexandre Tharaud (piano)
Sabine Devieilhe (soprano)†, Alexander Melnikov (piano)‡, Aleksandar Madžar (piano)‡
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Alexander Vedernikov
rec. January 2016, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (Concerto), February 2016, Salle Colonne, Paris (others).
ERATO 9029595469 [66:36]

If I were pressed, without thinking too long and without adding caveats, to name the most interesting pianist living today, as did a colleague of mine just recently, I would—and did—name Alexandre Tharaud.

It is, however, hard for me to suppress entirely the urge for nuance. So, I would - and did - add that I consider Tharaud an ideal performer especially in miniatures of all sorts. There are pianists for every occasion, and some I enjoy, or imagine enjoying, in certain repertoire more than in other, like for example loving Grigory Sokolov in small encores, but not clambering to hear him in a Beethoven sonata. Similarly with Tharaud: Will travel, beg, plead to hear him in small self-contained masterpieces such as he has recorded mostly and most successfully, from Rameau to Chopin to Satie, with liberal stops at Bach and Scarlatti and Poulenc. But to imagine him, say, in Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, why, that is absurd!

It is fair to say, then, that this recording of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto caught me by surprise. On the upside, this might be Tharaud’s first recording that I did not approach with unreasonably high expectations… only secretly high expectations, and conceding that I might possibly be bored. And now this: Like a swimmer, gently easing himself into the waters, luxuriating in the balmy wetness, Tharaud wades as deliciously lightly into this warhorse as only the composer himself (review) and Steven Hough (Hyperion - review), but also sweetly and tenderly as no one else. While the right hand bubbles on the surface; we are afforded an under-water view of the bass line, and the feet—if you will—stepping gingerly and steadily forward. Tenderness and grace continue to be the hallmark of the performance, whether in moments of Saint-Saëns-like lightness or Debussyesque contemplativeness, or rare moments of bluster that we have come to associate with the Rachmaninov of these allegedly thunderous concertos. Alexander Alexandrovich Vedernikov and the Royal LPO accompany passionately, and (yet?) in a rather unobtrusive way.

I first listened to this through very analytical in-the-ear headphones. I was therefore not sure if I particularly liked what struck me as a warm, fuzzy, slightly wooly recorded sound of the concerto. That impression of the recording dissipated to some extent when I listened to it on speakers (also on the analytical side): Now it merely sounded warm and generous, with an especially gorgeous ring to the piano, although a clearer punch to the orchestra would not, I should think, have done harm to the recording. Perhaps that contributes somewhat to the orchestra staying a little in the background (impression-wise, not aurally).

The concerto is certainly the headliner on this disc, but it hardly is the only ingredient; for me, maybe, not even the main attraction. Tharaud continues to explore more off-beat Rachmaninov and, voilà, we are back to miniatures. There are Cinq Morceaux de fantaisie, better known through the second of the five, the C sharp minor Prelude, usually singled out. Put into proper context, it is less a warhorse, more part-of-a-landscape. Tharaud, not out to shatter the piano in the Prelude’s opening chords, keeps the hesitant rhythm of the opening phrase for what follows. This strikes me as a more interesting way of playing it than hesitating just on entry and then pearling off something relatively light. In the former category you might put Ashkenazy (Decca), who starts with heavy, long-ringing opening bells, followed by a swift do-not-worry-about-your-attention-span run, or the not too dissimilar Nareh Arghamanayan (gorgeously recorded on Pentatone). The tempi are rather telling: Tharaud takes 4:16, Ashkenazy 3:49. For something completely different, try Olga Kern’s gorgeous study in contemplative slowness (5:05, Harmonia Mundi), heavier, less liquid, with more contrast, and pay-attention-or-you-loose-me detailing: fascinating if you let her indulge you.

The Vocalise is probably more often heard in transcription (especially Rachmaninov’s own for orchestra, and those for cello and violin by Heifetz, Rostropovich et al.) than the original piano/voice version. This happily means that the actually vocal version has not become such a cliché. Sabine Devieilhe sails through this deceptively simple sounding gem with touching clarity and tasteful vibrato.

Tharaud says adieux with Rachmaninov’s two pieces for piano, six hands, allegedly written for three sisters of his acquaintance in the countryside. I wish to think that—like Mozart with his deliberately pinky-intertwining pieces for four hands—he composed the pieces to rub shoulders, literally, with two of those sisters perched to either side of his. These are rare pieces, also very well done, for example, by the father, wife and son Ashkenazy team, and by Oleg Maisernberg, Brigitte Engerer and Elena Bachkirova (Harmonia Mundi, alas, undone by a distant, brittle sound). Here they are lovingly treated as if they were major works, with Alexandre Tharaud flanked by Alexander Melnikov and Aleksandar Madžar on his right and left. First the brooding lyrical Romance and then the circus romp Waltz for you to hop out of the recording on the other end. And perhaps back again, once or twice, for another ride.

Jens F. Laurson

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