Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2; Trois Préludes
The reappearance of Michelangeli's classic account of the Fourth Rachmaninov Concerto and the continuing presence of Richter in the Second (on DG, coupled with the Fifth Prokofiev Concerto) are almost unfair to the other accounts under consideration; but they are enormously helpful to the reviewer, since they cut straight through what might otherwise be a tedious list of minor pros and cons.
In crude and subjective terms Michelangeli and Richter make the spine tingle in a way none of the others can approach. How do they do it? Of course this is the secret every pianist would love to know, and which no writer can ever pin down. But it is possible to give some general indications. It is not a question of technique, at least not directly, because Ashkenazy (on Decca) can match their most virtuosic feats; indirectly, yes, it is relevant, in that there are dimensions in Michelangeli's and Richter's pianism which allow musical conceptions to materialize which might not dawn on others. It is not a question of structure, in the narrow sense of the awareness of overall proportions, judicious shaping of paragraphs, continuity of thought—Tirimo is a paragon in this respect; but the way structure is projected and the way it is transmuted into emotional drama, of course these things are critical.
In one way or another all the recordings under consideration respond vividly to the excitement of Rachmaninov's dramatic climaxes; but with Richter and Michelangeli these climaxes seem to burst through the music of their own volition, as though an irresistible force of nature has been released. It is this crowning of a structure by release, rather than by extra pressure, which gives their performances a sense of exaltation and which more than anything else sets them on a different level. It enables them to be freer in many details (some of which may not be universally approved) and yet seem more inevitable as a whole.
The impact of all this would be negligible without a sympathetically attuned conductor and orchestra. Fortunately that is exactly what Richter and Michelangeli have. By contrast Ahronovitch for Vasary cannot resist squeezing out emotional juice in an occasionally gross, and eventually rather predictable way- and for Tirimo the Philharmonia seem less than galvanized under Yoel Levi. Haitink and the Concertgebouw make a distinguished contribution, but the sheer size of their playing on several occasions forces Ashkenazy over the narrow dividing line between grandeur and brutality. It would be nice to report that the Erato issue is a fitting memorial to an artist under-represented in today's record catalogues. It isn't. The piano sound is unpleasant, the instrument not well tuned and the recording quality fierce, and Bachauer's playing, for all its sense of authority, tends to become laboured and overemphatic when the pressure is on.
I have said nothing about Michelangeli's Ravel partly because I have always felt uncomfortable with his persistent left-before-right mannerism in the slow movement and with his unwarranted textual tinkerings (like changing the last note). But there is no doubt that he is as finely attuned to this aloof idiom as to its temperamental opposite in the Rachmaninov. And although the recording cannot entirely belie its vintage, it does justice to one of the finest concerto records ever made.'