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Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18 (1901)
Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op 40 (1926)
Tamás Vásáry (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Yuri Ahronovitch
rec. 1976 (Op 18), 1977 (Op 40)
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 419 061-2 [65:26]

Hungarian pianist and conductor Tamás Vásáry (b. 1933) had the sponsorship of both Ernö Dohnanyi and Zoltan Kodaly early in his esteemed career. Having won the First Prize in the 1948 Liszt Competition and the Chopin Prize in Budapest, 1956, Vásáry debuted in Berlin in 1961 with the Berlin Philharmonic under Ferenc Fricsay, but no recorded document seems to exist of their collaboration in both of the Liszt concertos. Vásáry after 1979 embarked on an extensive conducting career, beginning with the Northern Sinfonia, the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, and the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra., along with appearances in both symphonic and operatic repertory in diverse, international venues.

This release pairs Rachmaninoff’s most popular and least popular piano concertos, the C minor’s having gleaned universal acceptance for its passionate fusion of grand melodic gestures with powerful declamations in the orchestral part. The G major still remains less frequently performed, despite some potent exhibitions of its technical bravura by pianists like the composer himself and the classic rendition from Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli from EMI in 1988. The performance of the C minor Concerto seems ideal: splendid pacing and articulation from Vásáry, from the opening series of nine chords and broad, left-hand spans, that resound like Russian bells – and provide the bases for all three movements - to the brilliant runs that cavort between tonic and dominant in lush, resonant melodies, what one commentator terms “impassioned melancholia.” The contribution from Ahronovitch and the LSO, immediate and consistently pungent, urges the cumulative impetus ever forward, and the LSO French horn – quite possibly David Cripps – makes a firm presence in the musical progression. The secondary theme in E-flat major receives the kind of expressiveness we know from classic renditions from Rubinstein and Kapell.

In the second movement, lyrical and gloomy, we do hear the “buoyant creative power” that seeks melody as its source of expression. This Adagio sostenuto proceeds as a hybrid form, nocturne and rondo. The subtle, enharmonic shift to E major includes some fine work between the London flute, clarinet and Vásáry. Often, the piano part and the orchestral tissue switch roles, but the balances between Vásáry and Ahronovitch proceed in liquid harmony. The dramatic shift into F-sharp minor suggests the Chopin Second Concerto middle movement as a model, at least from a dramatic perspective. The cadenza part, intricate and demanding in itself, seems to insist on its orchestral accompaniment. The return to the tonic E major, unhurried and graceful, provides a well-earned sense of closure. Some scholars refer to the last movement Allegro scherzando as an “enlarged sonatina.” Rachmaninoff combines his taste for dance and song in this movement, whose whiplash orchestral part often elicits sumptuous attacks from Ahronovitch. A claim has been made that the famous melody for this movement derives from Rachmaninoff’s friend Nikita Morozov. The real color coup, despite the origin of the melody, comes in the cymbal clashes with a pedal point on B-flat and the piano’s trill. The presto section of this movement moves with lithe power, especially in light of the fugato that emerges, demanding metric acuity from all parties. The resolution of all affects occurs in a triumphant C major, after the lovely secondary theme has made an appearance in D-flat, a key dear to Rachmaninoff and to Debussy. The intimacy Vásáry and Ahronovitch achieve justifies the price of admission just prior to the energetic coda, the lovely tune, Maestoso, in no uncertain terms. A thrilling performance, this, almost in spite of our jaded familiarity with the score.

In 1924, at the urging of friend Nikolai Medtner, Rachmaninoff addressed himself to serious work on a new concerto, since his creative output since 1918 had been virtually nil. Rachmaninoff would construct and de-construct his score several times, worried about its length and its anachronistic harmonic language. He complained that his musical contemporaries “compose from the head and not the heart” He decided to recast an unpublished etude-tableaux from 1911 for the frothy opening of the Fourth Concerto. This work projects a kind of neo-Romantic chastity about it, lacking majestic, melodic invention and foregoing the need for any solo cadenza. The abrupt, 6-measure coda of the first movement still manages to startle us in its acerbic, dramatic flourish. Rachmaninoff worried that his second movement Largo theme too much echoed the same movement in Schumann, with its “three blind mice” echoes. He need not have fretted over the similarity, since obsessive, dirge-like brooding dominates the music, which more or less reflects the Beethoven G Major Concerto in intimate colloquy for piano and responsory orchestra. The “bluesy” aspects of the movement might indicate that Rachmaninoff had been aware of Gershwin and Jazz as musical influences. The elaborate writing for the finale, Allegro vivace, we find in revised form, since Rachmaninoff’s anxiety over the length of the work caused him to excise over 100 measures in 1941. Vásáry and Ahronovitch do no stint on expressive energy in this reading; they impart a distinct sense of color novelty into Rachmaninoff’s “chaste” form of Romanticism. The sense of eerie virtuosity, especially dependent on riffs from Etudes-Tableaux, impels the last movement with massive sforzatos from all principals, settling to a kind of romantic gallop marked by an opulent French horn and lulling strings. The martial atmosphere becomes quite brazen, then dissipates over a pedal point to a series of arpeggios. The orchestral tissue resumes in short, jabbing motifs, punctuated by keyboard jazz figures, restless and determined in their ineluctable course to a G major resolution. The main theme recurs in anguished, orchestral harmony, with Vásáry’s literally cascading to an impassioned conclusion. A fine realization of a late Rachmaninoff work that still eludes easy categorization.

Gary Lemco

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