Monday, 15 July 2013

Review: Rachmaninoff - Etudes and Preludes - Lugansky & Petkova - Brilliant, 3 CDs


Tremendous etudes, decent preludes, excellent bargain

For my part, by far the most important reason to have this box-set is Lugansky's complete recording of all 17 etudes by Rachmaninoff which occupies CD 1; it is available separately, but at a higher price and without bonuses. The latter in this Brilliant reissue consist of Rachmaninoff's complete preludes (Op. 3 No. 2 + 10 pieces in Op. 23 + 13 pieces in Op. 32) played by Marietta Petkova, a Bulgarian pianist I have never heard of.

Lugansky's etudes were recorded as early as 1992 in the famous Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. These are incredible performances for a lad of 20. It is not his prodigious technique that impresses me – thousands of young pianists have this, and it is not so difficult a thing to achieve with modern recording equipment anyway – it is Lugansky's mature musicianship. And this is not something you often find, especially in Rachmaninoff's music and even among great names scores of years older than the young Nikolai. For such a tender age, Lugansky demonstrates remarkably deep understanding of Rachmaninoff's melodic and harmonic ideas. He doesn't miss a single detail, yet he never sounds like a mere collection of details. Nor does he ever push the music beyond its limits with foolish bravado, though he does play with a great deal of impressive virtuosity. This is true for the apocalyptic Op. 39 No. 9 too, where even Horowitz himself sometimes loses control. On the other hand, in the shattering Op. 39 No. 5 Lugansky cannot hold a candle to his legendary compatriot. Nevertheless, as a complete set, Lugansky's etudes stand very high among available recordings, though the field is not especially crowded.

But I have to say that, unlike his stunning Preludes and Musical Moments on 
Erato (recorded eight years later), Lugansky's complete etudes are not quite on par with Ashkenazy's set on DECCA (unfortunately, and inexplicably, not available on a singe disc, alas). Occasionally, Lugansky may be a little sloppy (Op. 33 No. 9*) or unnecessarily cautious (Op. 39 No. 6). One can understand: he was very young and his formidable technique was not yet fully under his control. But Ashkenazy's subtlety and sensitivity, to say nothing of his no less stupendous technique, make his etudes on DECCA a more satisfying set on the whole. Never mind. Lugansky is still well worth listening, though I wish he would re-record these pieces. In the 20 years since this early recording he certainly has matured as an artist, while his technique is at least as astounding as it was then.

Marietta Petkova's complete preludes, recorded in 2002 in The Netherlands, downgrade this set to four out five stars. Having again Ashkenazy's recording on DECCA as a starting point, Marietta is distinctly disappointing; she has neither his technical prowess nor his poetical insight. That said, avoiding the easy way with the comparisons and trying to assess the value of Marietta's preludes independently, this is a very decent and dependable set. She is rather on the slow side, and often too cautious, to be engaging in the more robust pieces, such as Op. 23 Nos. 2, 5 and 7, or Op. 32 Nos. 1, 6 and 13; whether this is by design or by necessity I do not know. She certainly manages better, very well indeed, in the lyrical preludes where she can be quite charming, as in Op. 32 No. 5 for instance, but also careless and rushed, most notably in Op. 32 No. 12.

On the whole, Marietta's technique, though far from impressive, seems quite adequate to the task and, most importantly, is never used as an end in itself. Even though her preludes are by no means my first choice, I daresay such musically accomplished interpretations are an excellent introduction to Rachmaninoff's preludes. Certainly, it is better to hear them for the first time with Marietta Petkova than with Alexis Weissenberg!

The sound of both recordings ranges from good to excellent. Lugansky is particularly well-recorded for such an obscure label as Challenge Classics (for which the recording was originally made). The sound is not quite on par with the sumptuous one provided by Erato for his recording of the Preludes Op. 23 and the Musical Moments, but it has a fine dynamic range and a fairly natural, deep sonority. Marietta was not so fortunate with the recording engineers. The sound of her recordings is a little dry, somewhat limited dynamically, and with occasional over-reverberant bass that may make some climaxes sound muddy. Nevertheless, unless one is a pathological audiophile, the sound is quite good enough to enjoy the music.

The cover art is indifferent, and the liner notes are perfunctory and perfectly dispensable, but all that is to be expected at such price of course. This still remains an excellent collection for Rachmaninoff buffs and neophytes alike. After all, it is but seldom that you find a complete recording of either the preludes or the etudes, let alone of both collected together. It is a special bonus that these sets range, artistically and sonically, from decent to excellent.

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* Note on the numbers of the etudes in Op. 33.

The mess with Op. 33 is so great that it deserves at least an attempt for explanation.

Tracks 1-8 on CD 1 are listed as etudes Nos. 1, 2, 5, 7, 3, 6, 8, 9. The absence of No. 4 and the presence of No. 9 can be explained by the fact that Rachmaninoff originally composed nine etudes, but for some reason he chose to publish only six. No. 4 was later revised and included as No. 6 in the other set of etudes, Op. 39, and the last two etudes (Nos. 3 and 5) were published only after Rachmaninoff's death. Today Op. 33 is usually recorded without the former No. 4 but together with the two posthumously published pieces. However, the order of the etudes on this disc still makes no sense whatsoever. It doesn't even conform to Rachmaninoff's wishes, because the six etudes he did publish during his lifetime, presumably as a set, are Nos. 1, 2, 6, 7, 8 and 9.

It is downright perplexing to observe that Ashkenazy's recording on DECCA simply lists the etudes as Op. 33 Nos. 1-8, no doubt a much wiser approach than the one used by Challenge Classics and duly copied by Brilliant. Needless to say, the etudes are absolutely the same. The numbers for Nos. 1 to 3 are the same in both sets, all others are shifted one down in Ashkenazy's set as to include No. 4 (which thus corresponds to No. 5 from Lugansky's set, and so on until No. 9 which is in fact No. 8 from Ashkenazy's set). The shuffled arrangement in Lugansky's set is baffling and the reasons for it remain obscure.

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