Mstation Classical Reviews

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Thu, 03 Mar 2005

Rachmaninov, Piano

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
The Piano Concertos and Paganini Rhapsody
Stephen Hough – Piano
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Andrew Litton

2 CDs

Recorded live in the Eugene McDermott Concert Hall, Morton H Meyerson
Symphony Center, Dallas: April and May 2004 and 29 June 2003 (Rhapsody).

Hyperion CDA67501/2

These new recordings of the Rachmaninov Concertos have already attracted considerable attention in the press, and not without good reason. As a live recording project this is a substantial undertaking for Hyperion and reflects their commitment to take on the multinational “major” labels in a head-to-head battle for the increasingly tight market in classical CD recordings. The result has been hailed as little less than a triumph, and this is a response that can be argued without too much resort to hyperbole.

There are arguments for and against the business of recording live concert performances for CD. It is said that the live situation gives greater excitement and spontaneity from the performers. It is also argued that the presence of microphones and the knowledge that everything is going to be listened to over and over again mitigates against that same spontaneity and tends to make performers err on the side of caution, which would not necessarily be the case in the studio where excitement that doesn’t quite work can be re-taken. Either way, the main argument against live recordings is the presence of the audience. They, of course, are indispensable in the concert hall, but for recordings they are, frankly, more often a pain than not. There is nothing more annoying than hearing the same muffled hacking in the same place every time one listens to a recording. Part of the reason that this set of Rachmaninov Concertos has been so warmly greeted is that the fact that it is recorded live is, for once, almost an irrelevence. The audience was either sealed in a box, or managed an unusually admirable degree of quietitude. Maybe it is that Stephen Hough and Andrew Litton’s Dallas players kept the audience spellbound throughout the performances. What is noticeable is the spontaneous and rapt applause with which the performances are greeted, and a short outburst of which the Hyperion engineers have chosen to retain.

As for the performances themselves, Stephen Hough is in fine form throughout. The virtuosity of the solo part is famous, especially in the third concerto and the Paganini Rhapsody. None of the technical challenges pose any apparent difficulty to Hough, and indeed it could be argued that sometimes the brisk tempi tend to lead to a glossing over of some of the details. At times it all sounds a bit too easy and thus to some extent negates the virtuosity that Rachmaninov sought. A comparison with the famous recording from 1972 with Ashkenazy and the London Symphony Orchestra under Andre Previn (Decca 444 839-2 and still regarded by many as the benchmark against which other performances are measured) shows that every movement of the four concertos is faster in the Hough/Litton performances than in the earlier set. Some of the differences are minimal, but, for example, in the short 4th concerto where Ashkenazy takes 10 minutes for the first movement, Hough is very nearly a whole minute shorter. The overall effect of the increased tempo is not so noticeable as this is applied uniformally, so the proportions of one movement to the next are still clear, and it has to be admitted that Hough’s more sprightly opening movement of the 4th concerto has a real sense of movement and almost frivolity that is not apparent in Ashkenazy.

The main criticism that has been levelled at the Hough performances is an unusually fast opening movement of the famous 2nd concerto. Again comparison with Ashkenazy is enlightening, but this time the older recording comes out on top. Clearly Hough and Litton are endeavouring to present a different picture in this movement from that which is usually heard and the performance remains admirable. Certainly, on repeated listening the fluidity of the tempo becomes quite pleasant, but the opening chords, striding from one end of the keyboard to the other in that great and inexorable build-up to the first subject, looses something by being cramped up in such close proximity one to the next. Similarly the first subject, in sonorous low strings, lacks the completeness of the brooding majesty that surely Rachmaninov intended. This is Romantic music with a capital R and a sense of the scale of melodic line needs to be brought out here, more than just about anywhere else.

Still, if performers never did anything new in interpretation music would quickly stagnate, so we must not judge the overall set by one aspect with which we disagree. Turning to the 3rd concerto we see Hough in all his technical plumage and the result here is exemplary. Again, the performance is fast – 38 minutes to Ashkenazy’s 46 – but the sheer energy and perfection of surface detail is remarkable, and thoroughly enjoyable. Throughout these works the piano dominates, of course, but the Dallas Symphony Orchestra shows that, under the immensely talented direction of Andrew Litton, they can make as rich and noble a noise as any of the great Russian or European orchestras. American orchestras are usually notable for pungent brass and individual woodwind sections, but not normally so much for beautiful string playing. This is an aspect that is vital to the Rachmaninov concertos, and Litton is acutely aware that the darker colours of the string sound must be used with rich abandon. The Dallas players rise to the challenge in this with considerable aplomb.

In managing to fit all four concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody into two CDs, Hyperion have given as complete a product of Rachmaninov’s piano and orchestra repertoire as it is possible to do. The result is beautiful, complimented by a richly detailed booklet not only describing in detail the works themselves, but setting them very much into a contextual position in Western music. This is the work of David Fanning and is well worth reading in its entirety. If listeners already own the complete Rachmaninov concertos there is still a good argument for adding this set as a modern complimentary account. There are aspects that take some getting used to, but that challenge is equally part of the experience as enjoying the familiar. Hyperion deserve to score a success with this set. (Peter Wells)

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