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Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 40 (1926)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1901)
Anna Fedorova (piano)
Sinfonieorchester St. Gallen/Modestas Pitrenas
rec. 2021, Tonhalle Theater St. Gallen, Switzerland.

There has to be some point to making a new recording of Rachmaninov's piano concertos, and the ubiquitous Second Piano Concerto in particular. Anna Fedorova has done a great deal in recent months raising money for war-torn Ukraine with concerts throughout Europe, and her and her husband's efforts are ongoing at the time of writing. Fedorova mentions Rachmaninov's own exile in the US after being forced to leave Russia after the 1917 revolution, and that this music “gives hope, raises the spirit and gives us strength to go on. It is full of humanity and belongs to all of us in the world.”

The programme deliberately begins with the Fourth Piano Concerto, representing “a farewell to the past and a dive into a quite terrifying future.” These concertos all have a certain symphonic quality, and I am delighted to be able to report that the balance of the piano against the orchestra is excellent here, the soloist as much a member of the ensemble as anything. There is detail and depth in the piano sound, but the solo instrument is not placed forward so that it covers orchestral sonorities. Fedorova is powerful and poetic without overt sentimentality, so that the central Largo is warm and expressive without being pulled around or having too much fur-coat comfort in the more languorous passages. The final Allegro vivace is riotously enjoyable, which is as it should be.

Anna Fedorova has a fine recording of the Second Piano Concerto with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on YouTube which has become something of a hit, and so the Sinfonieorchester St. Gallen comes against some stiff competition. With a fine string sound and decent enough wind soloists there is little to worry about however, and this is a class act from all concerned. That famous opening Moderato flows nicely, with climactic peaks hit effectively throughout. I can't emphasise enough the value of having soloist and orchestra balanced the way it is here, the sonority of the whole creating that special richness that Rachmaninov must have had in mind. With regard to expressiveness this is more of a romantic work than the Fourth Concerto, and Fedorova's rubato touch is in evidence, though again not to excess. Pacing in that wonderful central Adagio sostenuto is good, with enough movement to keep the boat firmly on course and in no way foundering. Wide-awake rhythmic drive characterises the final Allegro scherzando, with much eloquence and stunning virtuosity from Fedorova.

This coupling can be found with Tamás Vásáry and the London Symphony Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon (review), and all of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos can easily be had in other classic versions such as that with Vladimr Ashkenazy on Decca (review). The Decca label also has Valentina Lisitsa with the London Symphony Orchestra (review). The Fourth Concerto with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (review) is reckoned by some to be the best, and it is indeed a marvellous performance. The piano is a touch more forward in balance than ideal to my ears, and the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1957 is good enough without being perfect, but the enigmatic majesty of the whole makes it special. Fedorova's timings are a little more relaxed, but she doesn't drag by any means. Arthur Rubinstein with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Fritz Reiner is by consensus a top classic for the Second Piano Concerto, and the sheer fizz and stylish fireworks from this RCA recording is pretty much unbeatable. Once again, Fedorova's timings are a bit longer in each movement, but there are only one or two moments where you might arguably desire a bit more forward momentum.

With a decent if not quite superlative orchestra recorded in a good if not spectacular concert hall acoustic this is a release that will always risk becoming an ‘also-ran’ amongst the stiffest of competition, though Anna Fedorova is clearly a real star and always worth hearing. I've enjoyed re-acquainting myself with these concertos from this recording, and with all her good works Fedorova certainly deserves all the support she can get. I have to admit my expectations weren't so very high in this case, but I come away pleasantly surprised and happy to play this more often and at higher volume when the mood takes hold.

Dominy Clements

Published: November 17, 2022

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