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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18 (1900-1901) [35:00]
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No 4 in F minor, Op 36 (1877-78) [42:20]
Alexander Korsantia (piano)
Stuttgarter Philharmoniker/Dan Ettinger
rec. 24-26 September 2020, Stadthalle Sindelfingen, Germany

The orchestral opening of Dan Ettinger’s Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 has grit; the opening theme is thrust home resolutely, though the shaping of its ff climax (tr.1, 1:22) could be more pronounced. Then Alexander Korsantia brings an attractively free-flowing, rhapsodic manner to the second theme’s vision of beauty (2:26). I compare Yevgeny Sudbin with the BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo recorded in 2017 (review). The timing of the first movement at 10:06 to Korsantia/Ettinger’s 11:03, gives a yet firmer thrust, clearer focus to the opening theme and better shaping of its ff climax, but for the second theme I prefer Korsantia’s freer flow and his later dolce in high tessitura with the clarinet (4:04) is more magical.

The main theme of the slow movement soars heavenwards in the flute (tr. 2, 0:46) before the gorgeous clarinet treatment, then the sympathetic filling out by the piano. Ettinger presses on, yet makes the Un poco piu animato central section (3:57) sufficiently contrasted. His return to the opening theme is more beatific; from the singing violins (8:50) comes espressivo playing of finesse.

Careful phrasing in the orchestral introduction and piano’s opening makes the Sudbin/Oramo account for me over self-conscious. Sudbin brings out the ‘mezzo’ notes in relation to the ‘soprano’ arpeggios, stiffening the line. Korsantia makes the ‘mezzo’ clear without compromising the relaxed presentation, as Rachmaninov plays the passage in his 1929 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (review). Sudbin/Oramo’s central section is more contrasted and feverish, but at the returning main theme, Oramo’s sheen doesn’t achieve Ettinger’s dreamy, visionary state.

Ettinger’s Allegro scherzando finale is swashbuckling, with edge, so Korsantia’s solo (tr. 3, 1:50) makes a rhapsodic contrast. The orchestra introduces the big tune (2:05) richly, but with light horns’ punctuation. The piano repeats this dolce (2:36). It has a further, slower passage of beguiling, mesmeric reflection in three-quaver clusters and Korsantia does calm really well. Later on, taking his dolce seriously, Korsantia understates the climaxes: the ffs at 7:51 and 8:04 are mf, but this works OK. The only time the orchestra has the complete ‘big tune’ is at its fifth and final appearance (10:51): a proper ff here, then (11:32).

Sudbin/Oramo’s opening is lighter without Korsantia/Ettinger’s edge. Sudbin’s rhapsodic dolce passages lack Korsantia’s spaciousness. Oramo’s first big tune is assured, less rich than Ettinger’s, but I prefer his more prominent horns. Sudbin’s, appreciably shaped, is creamier than Korsantia’s. Sudbin makes his climaxes ff without detriment to the surrounding calm. I feel Oramo has a firmer sense of the orchestral contribution overall, but Ettinger remains ever involved.

In Ettinger’s introduction to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4, the closing focus on Fate’s victims is most moving, with the lamenting clarinets and bassoons. The main body’s first theme Ettinger presents as distressed sentience, the clear, tragic impact of the first big tutti (3:00) gradually revealed. Ettinger’s dolce grazioso transition shared by first clarinet and bassoon (4:16) has a beautiful coyness as it leads to the second theme on clarinet (4:59), easy and relaxed. Tchaikovsky’s blessed, luminous human form, passing by and beckoning with the repeated pp phrase (6:13), Ettinger plays softer still (6:18); it is not marked in my score and I’ve only heard it in Ettinger’s and Sladkovsky’s recordings. Ettinger sweeps forward to the first fff climax (7:34) and the glory of the four horns’ unison articulation (7:51) is arrested by the first fff Fate motif on trumpets con tutta forza (8:36), all delivered with admirable clarity.

The turning point of the development, when the first violins’ short, rhythmic phrase ends for the third time with an E-flat as a creamy mf apex (10:18), is radiantly revealed by Ettinger. The first theme then builds to an fff affirmation of its right to exist (11:58). After another battering by the Fate motif, a beatific transformation of part of it creates another rising phrase of hope, begun by the strings (16:02) and taken up by cantabile flutes and clarinets, then by oboes and horns, all flow serenely from Ettinger. However, in the ongoing contest I’d like more urgency at the coda’s Molto piu mosso (16:32) and more scream from the stratospheric strings.

There I’m pre-empting my comparison, the 2019 recording by the Tartarstan National Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Sladkovsky (review) (Sony G0100004353526S, currently available only in the UK as a single work in a download). Sladkovsky is more urgent at the Molto piu mosso and his closing strings really scream.

In the slow movement, the oboe solo first theme is marked semplice ma grazioso. Ettinger achieves both characteristics, Sladkovsky only the semplice. The second part of the theme grows to a climax, which from Ettinger is refined, whereas Sladkovsky is more boisterous, but, at the climax of the piu mosso central section (3:57), Sladkovsky’s championing of a time of passion is more alluring than Ettinger’s continued restraint.

The Allegro Scherzo honours pizzicato strings, Ettinger’s with a gauzy finesse, sensitive to dynamic contrasts; Sladkovsky’s a touch heavier with less dynamic range, but attractive energy. Ettinger extends the virtuosity to the Trio for woodwind (1:40), ignoring Tchaikovsky’s meno mosso, necessitating putting the brakes on when a piccolo is added and the dynamic being increased to ff (2:10). Sladkovsky’s Trio is more contrasted in being earthier, with his piccolo’s involvement, without tempo change, being more noticeable.

The Allegro con fuoco finale brings a great splash of a main theme. Ettinger’s showers of semiquavers are lightly articulated yet executed with panache, where Sladkovsky happily makes them a heady blur. Timing at 8:01 to Ettinger’s 8:43, Sladkovsky’s ceremony is fresher, Ettinger’s grander. The second theme (tr. 7, 0:15) is a plainer, folksy descent in quavers and crotchets, yet capable of quieter, ominous exploration, heavy brass pounding and strings’ melancholy. Sladkovsky more vividly conveys the melancholy. The third theme (1:00) is a jaunty, bantering tutti of joy, at the start of which Ettinger makes a momentary halt by broadening, which is arresting but without the spontaneity Sladkovsky achieves by not halting. When the Fate motif returns, there’s no first movement lamentation, just no acknowledgement. The D-flat from Ettinger’s cellos and basses (6:40) isn’t marked with his accent, just a diminuendo from p, so Ettinger is adding a reproof.

Michael Greenhalgh 

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