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Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1901) [34:49]
Études-tableaux, Op. 33 (1911) [23:04]
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)
Liebesleid (arr. Rachmaninov, 1910/21) [4:54]
Franz BEHR (1837-1898)
Lachtäubchen, ‘Polka de WR’ (arr. Rachmaninov, 1911) [3:59]
Boris Giltburg (piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Carlos Miguel Prieto
rec. 2016, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow and Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth. Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
NAXOS 8.573629 [66:57]

Piano Concerto No. 2 [33:25]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934) [22:54]
Anna Vinnitskaya (piano)
NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester/Krzysztof Urbański
rec. 2016, Rolf-Liebermann-Studio, Hamburg
Reviewed as a 24/44.1 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
ALPHA 275 [56:19]

As warhorses go, Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto is among the hardiest of the breed. And even if the composer had written nothing else – making him a one-trick pony – this would still be one of the most popular concertos of all time. The competition is fierce, from the composer’s own recording with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra (RCA/ Pristine) through to Earl Wild and the RPO/Jascha Horenstein (Chandos), Vladimir Ashkenazy, Bernard Haitink and the RCO (Decca), Stephen Hough/Dallas Symphony/Andrew Litton (Hyperion) and, more recently, Valentina Lisitsa, the LSO and Michael Francis (Decca) and Yuja Wang with Gustavo Dudamel and his Bolívars (Deutsche Grammophon).

I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but anyone searching for reviews of all the Rachmaninov – and the Paganini Rhapsody – should hotfoot it to MusicWeb’s Masterworks Index. Regarding the various fillers, I much admire Nikolai Lugansky’s illuminating traversal of both sets of Études-tableaux – Opp. 33 and 39 – which I first encountered in a Great Artists box from Brilliant Classics. As for the Rhapsody, Daniil Trifonov, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Philadelphians (Deutsche Grammophon) and Yevgeny Sudbin, Lan Shui and the Singapore Symphony (BIS) are my go-to versions of the piece. Both are splendid performances, with substantial couplings. (I listened to a high-res download of the Trifonov, from Qobuz.)

Of the two pianists represented here, Boris Giltburg is new to me, but I see his Naxos pairing of the Shostakovich concertos, with Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. was rated a Recording of the Month. As it happens, the only Anna Vinnitskaya album I’ve reviewed thus far – Alpha 203 – also offers those works, plus the Concertino for Two Pianos with Ivan Rudin. In my sign-off to that review I suggested Vinnitskaya is a pianist to watch, so her Rachmaninov comes freighted with great expectations. I’ve not come across the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester and Krzysztof Urbański before, but Giltburg’s baton-waver, Carlos Miguel Prieto, impressed me with his Korngold CD, which I reviewed in 2009.

On with the review, and the first movement of Giltburg’s concerto seems terribly tentative; alas, Prieto and the RSNO aren’t livewires either. And then there’s the unaccountably diffuse – even murky – recording, with its narrow soundstage, none of which is remotely desirable in a broad, passionate opener such as this. True, there’s room for poise and poetry, but even that’s in short supply here and, especially, in the lugubrious Adagio sostenuto that follows. For some reason, neither soloist nor conductor seems capable of sustaining a long, seamless line, and that, surely, is anathema in this most eloquent of concertos. The Allegro scherzando certainly has more brio and bite, but at this stage I fear the patient is beyond resuscitation.

Giltburg’s Op. 33 is reasonably energetic, and the recording – made in the Concert Hall at Wyastone Leys – is more congenial. That said, the piano still manages to sound veiled at times, and rather splashy at others. As a performance, Giltburg’s Études-tableaux simply fail to engage, let alone delight; in short, they lack the subtle shading and dynamic contrasts that make Lugansky’s Op. 33 so varied and colourful.

The two arrangements that conclude this collection are attractive enough – Giltburg shows some rhythmic agility in Lachtäubchen, but both here and in the Kreisler there’s a nagging anonymity to the playing that’s quite dispiriting. Just sample Sudbin in the latter piece – part of a strongly characterised and very idiomatic Rachmaninov recital that I have as a 24/44.1 download from eClassical – and the phrase chalk and cheese might spring to mind. That applies to the sound as well, with BIS rightly celebrated for the quality of their solo-piano recordings in particular.

The first movement of Vinnitskaya’s concerto isn’t as surging as some, but then she does tap into the rich vein of lyricism that Giltburg seems to miss. There’s light and shade here – as well as a keen sense of the music’s changing moods – and that helps to generate a convincing narrative. As for Urbański and his band, they’re alert and sympathetic partners; most important, there’s an essential ebb and flow to this performance that you won’t find in Giltburg and Prieto’s rather stilted version. Soundwise, the Alpha recording is pretty decent, with greater presence and a more ingratiating piano tone; the downside is that it isn’t forensic enough for my taste, notably in the denser writing, and the tuttis are a little bright at times.

Vinnitskaya’s Adagio sostenuto is lovely, limpid but not limp; also, there’s a deep sense of communion here – not to mention some fine woodwind playing – that I like very much indeed. And what a relief it is to have some colour and nuance – inner conviction, too – all lacking in Giltburg’s comparatively bland, even timorous, performance. After that heartfelt, beautifully shaped interlude, Vinnitskaya’s Allegro scherzando is suitably taut and propulsive, the dialogue between piano and orchestra well caught. Most welcome, though, is the arching tension that simply eludes her rival at this point.

While Vinnitskaya’s account of the concerto is both insightful and entertaining, it would be idle to pretend it’s a great one. Still, there’s much to enjoy here, the soloist showing the blend of feistiness and honest feeling that, in time, will propel her to greater things. Indeed, listening to her thoughtful, cleanly articulated Paganini Rhapsody only affirms that sense of promise. Vinnitskaya takes nothing as read; phrasing is imaginative, dynamics are finely calibrated and the whole piece emerges with a clarity and freshness that reminds me of Trifonov and Sudbin. Admittedly, some may feel Vinnitskaya is a little too restrained compared with, say, the exuberant Wild, but that telling inwardness has its own rewards.

Here, and in the concerto, the listener is always aware that the piano is centre stage, not a mere adjunct to the proceedings, and while that would be an open sesame for self-seeking soloists it’s emphatically not the case here. So, if you prefer your Paganini to have plenty of pizzazz, Vinnitskaya’s version may not appeal; however, if you long for intelligent and revealing pianism, it surely will. What’s more, Urbański and his committed players are in discreet, utterly musical attendance throughout.

Vinnitskaya trounces Giltburg in the concerto; her moreish coupling is a treat, too.

Dan Morgan



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