Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 [34:38]
Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op. 42 [19:34]
Vanessa Benelli Mosell (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirill Karabits
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, December 2015 (concerto), Prato, Italy, April 2016 (variations)
DECCA 4814393 [54:16]
You only need to look at this CD to realise that it’s all about the pianist. Not only does she feature on the cover (and in various booklet photos) in a sultry pose, but her chosen colour of pink is featured in her dress, the CD insert and even on the silver disc itself. Her prominence comes through in the music, too, with a recorded balance for the concerto that favours the piano far too much in the balance with the orchestra. When the strings first enter in the first movement, they sound much too recessed, to an extent that made me surprised the Kirill Karabits put up with it.
That said, it bothered me a lot less at the second time of listening, either because my ear had tuned into it, or because I wasn’t surprised any more. When I got past that, there’s a lot to enjoy, though it’s definitely the more sugary approach to Rach 2. The über-Romantic swoop that the music invites is indulged to the max, and you need to be prepared to give yourself to it. You won’t find the more analytical approach of the likes of Vladimir Ashkenazy, but there’s still undeniable excitement at the launch of the first movement’s recapitulation, and I enjoyed the teasing way the finale unfolds, dripping each return of the main theme in bit by bit, and culminating in a rabble-rousing coda. Some of the playing still feels a little exhibitionist, such as too slow a tempo for the great main theme of the slow movement (though maybe that’s Karabits’ fault), and some inappropriately spotlit piano playing towards the end of the first movement (maybe the producer?). However, if you enjoyed Benelli Mosell’s previous, more experimental Decca disc (review) then you will probably want to explore her move into more mainstream repertoire.
I enjoyed the Corelli Variations much more, perhaps because they’re less familiar. Rachmaninov loved variations, and by the time he composed these, towards the end of his life, he knew what he was doing. His choice of theme is inspired: it’s simple enough to be memorable, but also angular enough to provide him with lots of material, and he generates a brilliant musical and emotional journey out of his response to it. Benelli Mosell responds with a kaleidoscopic range of technique and a sense of structure. I like the way she seems to feel her way through the early variations, for example, dashing through the skittish shorter ones before building to the much greater heights of the Intermezzo and the fifteenth variation.
It’s hard to know who this disc will appeal to, though. Most Rachmaninov fans will already have a (better) recording of the concerto and, fine as the Corelli Variations are, they seem scant reason to buy a disc that’s already under an hour’s running time. Has Benelli Mosell built up a sufficient fan base already to attract people to buy it just for her?