Monday, 15 July 2013

Review: Rachmaninov - The Piano Concertos, etc. - Ashkenazy - DECCA, 6 CDs

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943)
The Piano Concertos, etc.

Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano

CD 1:
Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 1* (recorded in 1971)
Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 18* (1971)

CD 2:
Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 30* (1971)
Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 40* (1971)

CD 3:
10 Preludes, Op. 23 (1975)
13 Preludes, Op. 32 (1975)

CD 4:
Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43* (1971)
Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 36 (1981)
8 Etude-tableaux, Op. 33 (1981)
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2 (1975)

CD 5:
Suite No. 1 for Two Pianos, Op. 5** (1974)    
Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos, Op. 17** (1974)
Russian Rhapsody for Two Pianos** (1979)
Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Op 42 (1973)

CD 6:
9 Etude-tableaux, Op. 39 (1986)
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45** (1979)

* London Symphony Orchestra, Andre Previn
** Andre Previn, piano

Much more than just a great bargain!

I should like to disagree completely with anybody who thinks that the most important thing about this box-set is the budget price. No, not even close, gentlemen. Stupendous bargain this collection certainly is, but the most important reason to have it is the remarkable excellence and consistency of the playing. Vladimir Ashkenazy may not be the most original or imaginative musician who ever lived, but he is certainly one of the most subtle and sensitive ones, and I, for one, am ready to rate his Rachmaninoff among the finest in my admittedly limited listening experience.

As far as the four concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody are concerned, no self-respected fan of Rachmaninoff could be indifferent to his own stunning recordings made between 1929 and 1941. Personally, I love them all, but I do think there is enough room for Ashkenazy's vastly different renditions. His First Concerto is a particularly fine recording of a vastly under-rated and under-recorded work. The Second Concerto is one of the most crowded fields in classical music (even the Chinese buffoon has recorded it), and I have a great deal of affection for Weissenberg/Karajan and Bolet/Dutoit. But since I have never cared about Richter's crude playing, Ashkenazy is top contender here as well. The Third Concerto is a little disappointing, at least with Horowitz (1950, 1978 live) or Bolet (1969 live, 1982) in mind, but Ashkenazy pulls it off more than decently and he is worth listening to, even if he should have chosen the alternative cadenza. (As he did in his 
earlier recording - DECCA, 1963 - with Fistoulari, which is on the whole a finer performance than the present one with Previn.) The Fourth Concerto I could never quite accept as one written by Rachmaninoff and since, apparently, I am the only person on earth who has never heard Michelangelli's ultra-hyper-mega legendary recording, Ashkenazy is quite good enough for my money. As for Andre Previn at the rostrum, he is no Karajan of course, but he is more than competent and quite able to match the sensitivity of Ashkenazy's playing. He often coaxes tremendous sound from the London Philharmonic and DECCA have done a great job with the recording.

The solo piano works are even better. I still think that Ashkenazy's complete recordings of the Preludes and the Etude-tableaux are overall the finest. He is way above Weissenberg's banging in the former and at least as impressive as Lugansky, but more musical than him, in the latter. Ashkenazy's technique is stupendous but always put at service of the music, never at its expense. That's saying a great deal and it is not something one often finds in Rachmaninoff's works, or any other works for that matter. It is a curious irony but Ashkenazy's seemingly impersonal approach often produces results which are anything but ordinary. Only in the famous G minor prelude (Op. 23 No. 5) and the achingly beautiful etude-tableau Op. 39 No. 5 do I certainly prefer with other pianists (Horowitz for both, Lugansky for the former). In any of the other 39 pieces Ashkenazy's supreme musicianship, with his exquisite handling of melodic lines and inner voices, easily stands comparisons with more dazzling and extrovert interpretations. Indeed, he doesn't lack drama and passion, even certain amount of rhetoric, either: the grandeur of his Prelude Op. 3 No. 2 is irresistible and seldom matched by others. The etudes are particularly stunning, played with a rare combination of panache and musicality that easily equals Rachmaninoff's own, and outstanding, interpretations (as in Op. 36 No. 6) and sometimes even surpasses Horowitz himself, if not in terms of high-voltage virtuosity, at all events in terms of sheer musicianship (Op. 39 No. 9). Ashkenazy's rendition of the haunting Op. 33 No. 8 makes the young Lugansky's wonderfully unbridled approach sound dull by comparison. All pieces are splendidly recorded, the piano having beautifully balanced and sonorous sound which is not often found on record, even in DECCA's catalogue.

My only slight disappointment is the Second Sonata where, for once, Ashkenazy falls a little short of my expectations. The lyrical passages of the second movement are surprisingly stodgy and in the finale he stumbles several times rather awkwardly. The stupendous climax in the first movement, surely among the most amazing ones in the piano literature, is impressively played, but the sweeping chords afterwards are unnecessarily rushed. It is nice, powerful performance overall, but nowhere near the apocalyptic vision of 
Horowitz or the more poetical approaches of Lugansky and Vesselin Stanev. Nevertheless, this is a very minor blemish of little consequence for the value of the set as a whole.

If this box-set has any drawbacks, these are mundane ones, such as the weird programs on some of the CDs. For example, the 24 Preludes should have been on one disc, as they are available 
separately, and so should the 17 etude-tableaux, as they have never been available, sadly and inexplicably. The terrific version for two pianos of the Symphonic Dances (which makes a most fascinating comparison with the orchestral original) should, of course, have been on the same disc with the suites that were originally composed for two pianos. It is also regrettable that Ashkenazy did not record more of the music for solo piano, such as the other four pieces from Op. 3, the six Musical Moments Op. 16, the seven pieces than comprise Op. 10, the Variations on a Theme by Chopin Op. 22 or the First Sonata, why not even some of Rachmaninoff's delicious transcriptions of music than ranges from Bach to Kreisler. In fact, he did record many of these pieces but a little too late to be included in this box-set. (I regret to say that his renditions of the transcriptions are surprisingly disappointing, often rushed and crude; but the Musical Moments and the Five Pieces, Op. 3, are excellent.)

Never mind. Apart from minor quibbles, Ashkenazy's six-disc exploration of Rachmaninoff's works is not just comprehensive - including as it does works for solo piano, piano duet and for piano and orchestra - but it maintains an astonishingly high artistic excellence in all fields. This is no mere introduction or great bargain. It is much more than that. These recordings have survived for some forty years after they were made, and I see no reason why they should not survive for at least forty more. I know of no other pianist who has recorded so much Rachmaninoff so well.

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