Sunday, April 11, 2010

In perfect balance -- Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto, where everything comes together just right

This is the first part (of three) of longtime pals Martha Argerich (born 1941) and Nelson Freire (born 1944) playing Rachmaninoff's delightful Second Suite for Two Pianos. (We last heard Argerich and Freire, separately, playing Schumann.) We'll hear more of the performance below.

by Ken

Friday night we heard the first movement of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2, as played by Arthur Rubinstein and Fritz Reiner -- the way I first encountered the music on RCA's Rubinstein Heart of the Piano Concerto compilation LP. Last night we detoured to make a quick run through Rachmaninoff's "other" piece for piano and orchestra -- other than the four concertos, that is -- the wonderful Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Today we're back to the Second Concerto.

It's not Rachmaninoff's most ambitious concerto, which would be the Third. I know people who are nuts for the Third Concerto, but I've never warmed to it nearly as much as the Second, which seems to me not only one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, but one of the most amazingly well-balanced, in terms of its movements, in the classical literature.


In fact, if any of its three movements carried its weight even a trifle less successfully, it could have ruined the whole piece. it fascinates me, nevertheless, that my attachment to those three movements is absolutely equal. In almost all performances, by the way, the three will time out to within a couple of minutes of each other. In Sviatoslav Richter's DG recording, which we almost heard today, the movement timings are 11:15, 11:53, and 11:38, for a 38-second spread between the "fastest" and "slowest" movement. The Zymerman-Ozawa timings are 11:46, 12:15, 11:34, for a 41-second spread. You can't get much evener than that!

i. Moderato; Allegro

Of course we've already heard this movement, and I don't plan to say much more about it. As I said, given any kind of competence in the performance, the distinctive solo-piano opening gets me every time, and then when the orchestra joins in sounding that wonderful opening theme, wow! And then Rachmaninoff finds yet another level when the soloist introduces that gorgeous lyrical theme. Since we have a suitably "poetic" performance below, in the complete recording by Krystian Zimerman, I thought I'd go with this clearly and beautifully projected one by the Texas-born Van Cliburn (born 1934), with our old friends from Friday night, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony.

Van Cliburn, piano; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded March 31 and Apr. 2, 1962

ii. Adagio sostenuto

If Rachmaninoff hadn't come up with a great principal theme for his slow movement, the kind that burrows into your consciousness and doesn't let go, I don't think the concerto would have worked. Fortunately he did and it does. As I was sampling my Rachmaninoff Second CD holdings, the performance that really gripped me was this earlier recording by Arthur Rubinstein, mono sound and all. (I think the sound is quite fine for 1946, though.) It's possible to hear a darker side of the music, but I don't think it's possible to play it much more beautifully.

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; NBC Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Golschmann, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded May 27, 1946

iii. Allegro scherzando

Again, after two such extraordinary movements, if Rachmaninoff hadn't managed to maintain the level and also add something new, the piece as a whole wouldn't have worked. It turns out that he had something ideal up his sleeve: this brilliant and boisterous movement, which perfectly complements what we've heard while taking us in a direction I don't think anyone could have anticipated. For this movement I've turned to another fine American virtuoso, the Pennsylvania-born Byron Janis (born 1928).

Byron Janis, piano; Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati, cond. Mercury, recorded April 1960



RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

i. Moderato; Allegro
ii. Adagio sostenuto
iii. Allegro scherzando

Krystian Zimerman, piano; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, cond. DG, recorded December 2000

As I mentioned Friday night, I had a different recording in mind: my very first one, bought back when direct importation of German Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft (as the company was still known) pressings was still relatively new, and DGG LPs commanded an extra suggested-retail dollar (in additon to the then-standard extra suggested-retail dollar for the stereo edition, bringing them up to a whopping $5.98, meaning that I would have expected to pay $2.99 on sale at Goody's or Korvette's, rather than my standard stereo LP sale price of $2.49). It's Sviatoslav Richter's April 1959 studio recording made in, of all places, Poland -- we may think of Poles and Russians as more or less interchangeable, but they sure don't. (As far as I know, the very fine conductor, Stanislaw Wislocki, didn't have any kind of career outside Poland.)

I used to think of the Richter Rachmaninoff recording as one of my private pleasures; you never used to hear about it much. But I see from the assorted online reviews that the world has caught up to it, and I think "gotten" that it's a darker-than-usual performance, more melancholy -- not really the right word, maybe stoic? Definitely not heart-on-sleeve, and certainly not "tragic," but still a long way from cheerful. I do have a CD issue of it (somewhere!), and on renewing acquaintance, I was relieved to find that I love the performance as much as ever, maybe more, though in one important way less. In some ways the most remarkable thing about the LP issue was the assortment of Rachmaninoff preludes that filled out the second side -- Richter at his introspective yet commanding best. (I assume they've found a place on CD somewhere.)

Since the Richter-Wislocki recording is so well appreciated, and at least for the moment readily available (coupled with a recording of the Tchaikovsky First Concerto conducted by Herbert von Karajan that's nobody's favorite performance of that piece but is still an awfully good performance), I don't mind giving it a pass in favor of what seems to me a beautifully poetic (and very beautifully played) performance by the Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman (born 1956) with the Boston Symphony contributing appropriately soulful playing under Seiji Ozawa.


Since we'd already sampled both this recording and the composer's own 1929 one with Stokowski, I deliberately looked for other recordings above. But I've got sound files for the whole of the Rubinstein-Reiner recording, and it seems a shame to let them go to waste. (You can compare this slow movement with the 1946 recording above.) And I think it would be kind of silly to make you dig out the first movement from Friday's post, so here's the whole thing.

RACHMANINOFF: PIano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

i. Moderato; Allegro

ii. Adagio sostenuto

iii. Allegro scherzando

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Jan. 9, 1956



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