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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873 - 1943)
Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor, Op.18 [33.25]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 [22.35]
Anna Vinnitskaya (piano)
NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra/Krzysztof Urbański
rec. Rolf-Liebermann-Studio, Hamburg, 2016
ALPHA 275 [56.36]

This CD features performers who are not quite household names, in repertoire which has been much performed and recorded by some of the finest pianists in history, from Rachmaninov himself, via Horowitz (though he seemed to prefer Concerto No.3), Ashkenazy and others. The Second Piano Concerto is for many the favourite of Rachmaninov’s concertos, and the Paganini Variations are perennially popular. So, no competition then. I confess that I began to listen to the new recording with a degree of scepticism about its virtues. That is not a good way to begin, but this review will be coloured by all the enthusiasm of an initially reluctant convert as among the finest Rachmaninov recordings I have heard.

The peculiar danger in Rachmaninov is the issue of lingering over the many beautiful details in his works but losing both the sense of the shape of the whole, and a degree of forward drive. The opposite vice is to recognise his virtuosity and to provide a scintillating display of pianism – a self-indulgence which leads to superficial display rather than deep musicality. There are depths here which require mature insight.

In these performances, there is both steel and poetry. Take for instance the famous Variation XVIII (Track 22). Here the orchestral writing is given full weight and dynamic thrust. Vinnitskaya does not linger, but neither does she give any note less than its full weight. There is a conversational quality before the abrupt transition to the bell-like Variation XIX. This is a performance which never forgets where it is going. The same is true in the Concerto where everything is crafted as part of an overarching structure. Vinnitskaya reveals unerring grasp of both the shape of a phrase and its relationship to the whole.

Anna Vinnitskaya, Russian-born but Hamburg based, has worked frequently with Krzysztof Urbański, Chief Guest Conductor of the orchestra, and it shows. One is immediately aware of the way they listen to each other. Not all conductors have this gift, but in Rachmaninov, the conductor’s role is crucial in proving both framework and drive.

This recording is a triumph, which, I suspect will be my go-to for these lovely works, though I would not be without the Ashkenazy/Previn or Hough/Litton recordings of the complete concertos. Direct competition for a modern recording of this coupling comes from Lang Lang with Valery Gergiev on DG. Listening to Vinnitskaya demonstrates everything I find lacking in Lang Lang’s tendentious interpretation. Recording quality is clear and warm throughout.

Michael Wilkinson
Previous review: Dan Morgan



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