Monday, 15 July 2013

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

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)

Complete Études-tableaux
Complete Preludes

CD 1

8 Études-tableaux, Op. 33
[1] No. 1 in F minor: Allegro non troppo [2:58] 
[2] No. 2 in C major: Allegro [2:22] 
[3] No. 5 in D minor: Moderato [3:38]
[4] No. 7 in E flat major: Allegro con fuoco [1:51]
[5] No. 3 in C minor: Grave [5:51] 
[6] No. 6 in E flat minor: Non allegro [1:40]
[7] No. 8 in G minor: Moderato [4:05]
[8] No. 9 in C sharp minor: Grave [2:36]

9 Études-tableaux, Op. 39
[9] No. 1 in C minor: Allegro agitato [3:03]
[10] No. 2 in A minor: Lento assai [7:01]
[11] No. 3 in F sharp minor: Allegro molto [2:32]
[12] No. 4 in B minor: Allegro assai [3:38]
[13] No. 5 in E flat minor: Appassionato [5:15]
[14] No. 6 in A minor: Allegro [2:45]
[15] No. 7 in C minor: Lento lugubre [7:41]
[16] No. 8 in D minor: Allegro moderato [3:15]
[17] No. 9 in D major: Allegro moderato (tempo di marcia) [3:39]

CD 2

[1] Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2: Lento [4:08]

10 Preludes, Op. 23
[2] No. 1 in F sharp minor: Largo [4:16]
[3] No. 2 in B flat major: Maestoso [3:44]
[4] No. 3 in D minor: Tempo di minuetto [3:56]
[5] No. 4 in D major: Andante cantabile [4:42]
[6] No. 5 in G minor: Alla marcia [4:11]
[7] No. 6 in E flat major: Andante [2:54]
[8] No. 7 in C minor: Allegro [2:59]
[9] No. 8 in A flat major: Allegro vivace [4:00]
[10] No. 9 in E flat minor: Presto [2:10]
[11] No. 10 in G flat major: Largo [3:34]

CD 3

13 Preludes, Op. 32
[1] No. 1 in C major: Allegro vivace [1:28]
[2] No. 2 in B flat minor: Allegretto [3:37]
[3] No. 3 in E major: Allegro vivace [2:38]
[4] No. 4 in E minor: Allegro con brio [6:14]
[5] No. 5 in G major: Moderato [2:59]
[6] No. 6 in F minor: Allegro appassionato [1:37]
[7] No. 7 in F major: Moderato [2:18]
[8] No. 8 in A minor: Vivo [2:06]
[9] No. 9 in A major: Allegro moderato [3:01]
[10] No. 10 in B minor: Lento [5:54]
[11] No. 11 in B major: Allegretto [2:47]
[12] No. 12 in G sharp minor: Allegro [2:45]
[13] No. 13 in D flat major: Grave [5:37]

Nikolai Lugansky, piano (Études)
Marietta Petkova, piano (Preludes)

Recorded: June 1992, Concert Hall of the Russian Academy of Music, Moscow (Études); April 2002, Hervormde Kerk Rhoon, The Netherlands (Preludes).

Brilliant Classics, n.d. 3CD. 63:57+40:42+43:03. Liner notes by David Doughty.


Tremendous etudes, decent preludes, excellent bargain

For my part, the most important reason to have this box-set is Lugansky’s complete recording of the etudes. It is available separately, but it’s much more expensive and without bonuses. The latter in this Brilliant reissue consist of Rachmaninoff's complete preludes played by one Marietta Petkova, a Bulgarian pianist I have never heard of.

The etudes are incredible performances for a lad of 20. It is not Lugansky’s prodigious technique that impresses me – thousands of young pianists have this, and it is not so difficult to achieve in a modern recording studio anyway – but his mature, original and compelling musicianship. Now, 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 unique sound world. 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 reasonable limits with foolish bravado, though he does play with a great deal of impressive bravura. This is true for the apocalyptic Op. 39 No. 9 too, where even Horowitz himself sometimes (almost) loses control. On the other hand, in the shattering Op. 39 No. 5, the quintessential musical expression of the Russian soul (whatever that means), Lugansky cannot hold a candle to his legendary compatriot. That said, as a complete set, Lugansky’s etudes stand very high among available recordings, though the field is not exactly 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). 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 25 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 downgrade this set to four stars. Using Ashkenazy’s DECCA recording as a yardstick, Marietta is rather disappointing; she has neither his technical prowess nor his poetical insight. That said, avoiding the easy way with comparisons and trying to assess the value of Marietta’s preludes independently, this is a very decent and very 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 some of Rachmaninoff’s most haunting compositions. 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 sonics provided by Erato, but it has a fine dynamic range and a fairly natural sonority. Marietta was not so fortunate with her recording engineers. The sound suffers from somewhat limited dynamics and occasional muddiness in the climaxes courtesy of overblown bass. 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 a bargain price, of course. This 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 both collected together. It is a special bonus that these sets range, artistically and sonically, from decent to excellent.


*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 confusing to observe that Ashkenazy’s recording on DECCA simply gives 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 works 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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