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Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor, Op 30 [39:56]
Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op 43 [17:00]
Piano Sonata No 2 in B flat minor, Op 36 [30:57]
Michael Korstick (piano)
Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava/Dmitry Liss
rec. 2017 House of Culture, Ostrava, Czech Republic (Concerto); 2018 Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Cologne, Germany (Variations); 2005 Congress Centrum Großer Saal, Pforzheim, Germany (Sonata)

I’ve always been a sucker for romantic piano concertos, whether something brand new to me, or one of the real warhorses in the repertoire. So, when the opportunity to hear this all-Rachmaninoff new release on the OEHMS label, featuring arguably one of the most ‘romantic’ of them all arose – his Third Concerto in D minor – I grasped it with both hands. While it has nothing whatsoever to do with the music, OEHMS goes for ‘off’ when transliterating the composer’s Russian surname from the Cyrillic, while others prefer ‘ov’. There have been many reasons put forward for either, but I suppose the composer should be afforded the last word on this, preferring, as he did, ‘Rachmaninoff’ on his tombstone.

The pianist here is German-born Michael Korstick, a name that wasn’t familiar to me. Initially I assumed he was just another of the new generation of young pianists emerging almost daily, and cutting their ‘recording-teeth’ on some pretty formidable repertoire. In fact he was born in 1955 and studied with Tatiana Nikolayeva in Moscow, before completing his studies at New York’s Juilliard School. A frequent prize-winner in many prestigious international competitions, Korstick has now garnered a reputation as one of Germany’s leading pianists, and includes some 130 works for piano and orchestra among his extensive repertoire.

The CD begins with the concerto, and the opening holds no surprises, with soloist and orchestra carefully observing the composer’s subdued dynamic markings, initially never louder than an occasional mf (moderately loud), and this in the piano part only. But the very familiar rising cello tune around 21 or so seconds in and doubled by a single bassoon, admittedly both playing p (softly), and the muted cello additionally marked dolce (softly), is barely audible, despite its important role here as a countermelody to the simple octave delivery from the piano, something a feature the composer often makes telling use of elsewhere. By comparison, most other recordings do seem to dwell more on the ‘sweetly’ aspect, which does require a certain minimum dynamic level to come over effectively. On Korstick’s CD, perhaps, conductor Dmitry Liss doesn’t see this phrase as being of much significance in the overall scheme of things.

As soon as the piano has finished delivering the opening theme, as is normally practiced, the orchestra then gets its chance to shine a little, while the soloist weaves elaborate, fast-moving decorations around it, here with a little quickening of pace. Again the orchestra’s dynamic is often very quiet (pp), and the loudest the piano gets is the odd mf, as before. Well, that’s what is says on the tin, but in reality the balance is far from that, once the soloist starts to build up speed. Either the piano is now positioned so far to the fore on the recording stage, or the microphone is inside the piano-lid, but frankly all that seems to be heard is the piano’s filigree decorations, as if the orchestra had popped out for a break. I checked my speakers, in case one channel had dropped off – I checked the disc to ensure that it was a bog-standard CD and nothing more exotic – but all to no avail. It just didn’t sound like the concerto I thought I knew at this point in the proceedings.

As far as the rest of the first movement goes, it’s basically the same problem. The soloist appears very much to the fore all the time, and the orchestral contribution conversely very much in the background. This is really such a shame, as Korstick is a fine technician and expressive player – one has merely to listen to his immensely powerful playing in the cadenza, or his lovely, sensitive touch in the calm section in B flat at 3:45 onwards. But, unlike Chopin’s concertos, where the orchestra can virtually be dispensed with, or where, at least, it doesn’t rely on having the best players available, Rach 3, despite probably being one of the most challenging for the pianist, still relies greatly on the contribution from the orchestra, whether in the shape of full-bodied support at climaxes, or delicate contributions from solo instruments by way of numerous countermelodies. From its discography and reviews, the Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava would appear able to provide the kind of support Korstick’s playing deserves. Perhaps the recording does it few favours, or Liss wanted to give every conceivably prominence to the soloist.

While the problem hasn’t exactly gone away in the ensuing Intermezzo, there are certainly places where the orchestra almost starts to shine. The opening introduction does show them capable of some nice expressive playing though still at a the quieter end of the dynamic spectrum, and equally there are some full-orchestral tuttis where, even if the strings still don’t make a rich, full-blooded contribution at points of climax, their sound is certainly far less anaemic here. But it still seems very much all about Korstick again. True, even in the most complex piano textures he manages to elicit every countermelody, extra line from his part, in glorious true Rachmaninoff style, but the orchestra still deserves a greater part of the action, if they’re up for it, that is.

The Finale does have some exciting moments, as well as some notes from the piano part I hadn’t really noticed before, especially towards the end where Rachmaninoff’s glorious D- major big tune shines through in all its glory, after its thematically fragmentary build up, and preparation during the course of the movement. Perhaps it’s not as spine-tingling here as with some other performances out there, but the final run-in nevertheless still manages to generate a fair degree of excitement. The most informative sleeve-notes comment on the cut made during the Finale, one that had been traditional in performances of the concerto into the 1970s. Korstick also makes the cut on the present CD, a decision he apparently made when he first learnt the work as a student.

From here on in, starting with the Corelli Variations, it’s just pure Korstick. Whereas there was so much to comment on in the concerto, now it’s more just a question of balance between the hands, or where the composer wants the performer to pick out a counter-melody that is often to be shared between the hands. Korstick has already shown himself to be a past-master of this, as well as following Rachmaninoff’s clear instructions on the page to the letter. His consummate technical prowess makes the often-quite-formidable difficulties seem like simple five-finger exercises, while in the slower, more enigmatic, though equally challenging variations, his approach is always so well-considered and incisive. As in the concerto, Korstick makes just one omission, this time by leaving out Variation 13, for reasons outlined in the sleeve-notes.

The history of the CD’s final work, the Sonata No 2 in B flat minor, has already been well documented. Essentially, when Rachmaninoff performed the piece at its premičre in Moscow, it was well received. However, the composer himself was not satisfied with the work, feeling that too much in the piece was superfluous, and so, in 1931, he began work on a revision, which included shortening and removing some technical difficulties. Vladimir Horowitz later approached Rachmaninoff in 1940 to ask whether he might make his own version, combining the composer’s two published version, to which Rachmaninoff gave his blessing. The sleeve-note suggests that Korstick might have been the first German to play the Sonata in public in his own personal version based on Horowitz’s, when he performed it in Cologne in 1979.

Initially I tried to follow both the 1913 and 1931 versions simultaneously, to try to piece together in my own mind what Korstick's unique contribution involved, in terms of cuts and amendments. But all I can say is that what I heard on the CD is some of the most stunning solo playing I have listened to for a long time. True, because of all this, you might now be wondering whether this quite phenomenal German pianist should be considered a musical equivalent of ‘The Tinkerman’ – a nickname often afforded to former Italian football-team manager and player, Claudio Ranieri, because of his frequent team changes and shifts of positions. This, however, should not be the case since in all other works by Rachmaninoff that Korstick regularly performs, he considers any ‘modifications’ totally unnecessary, preferring instead to follow the printed score absolutely meticulously. As far as the Concerto, Variations and Sonata are concerned, he wasn’t alone in making amendments to the score. Even the composer himself would apparently cut the odd Variation in the Corelli set during a performance, if he felt there was too much coughing, or the audience was losing interest.

I am quite sure that, had a leading German orchestra commensurate with Michael Korstick’s keyboard prowess been given the same task of collaborating with him in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 3, I would now be wholeheartedly singing the praises of this recording. The solo playing is unreservedly immaculate throughout, but, rather like the curate’s egg – or here perhaps a more-appropriately-named Fabergé egg – the CD as a whole is somewhat flawed.
Philip R Buttall


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