Rachmaninov Piano Concertos

Author: 
Bryce Morrison
Rachmaninov Piano ConcertosRachmaninov Piano Concertos

RACHMANINOV Piano Concertos

  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4

Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recorded partnerships with Kondrashin, Previn, Haitink, Ormandy and, as conductor, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, testify to his enduring affection for the Rachmaninov concertos. This present reissue with Previn and the LSO dates from 1972 yet the sound and balance are superb and there is nothing to cloud or impede one’s sense of Ashkenazy’s greatness in all these works. Few performances erase, in such a serene and magisterial way, loose chatter about pre-Hollywood emotionalism or an estimate, in a mercifully past edition of Grove, of a composer “too cosmopolitan to achieve lasting value”. From Ashkenazy every page declares Rachmaninov’s nationality, his indelibly Russian nature. What nobility of feeling and what dark regions of the imagination he relishes and explores in page after page of the Third Concerto in particular. Significantly his opening is a very moderate Allegro ma non tanto, later allowing him an expansiveness and imaginative scope hard to find in other more ‘driven’ or hectic performances. His rubato, his sense of the music’s emotional ebb and flow, is as natural as it is distinctive and his way of easing from one idea to another (the first movement Allegro – Tempo precedent ma un poco piu mosso) shows him at his most intimately and romantically responsive. There are no cuts, and his choice of the bigger of the two cadenzas is entirely apt, given the breadth of his conception. Even the skittering figurations and volleys of repeated notes just before the close of the central Intermezzo cannot tempt Ashkenazy into display and he is quicker than any other pianist to find a touch of wistfulness beneath Rachmaninov’s occasional outer playfulness (the scherzando episode in the finale).
Such imaginative fervour and delicacy are just as central to Ashkenazy’s other performances. His steep unmarked decrescendo at the close of the First Concerto’s opening rhetorical gesture is symptomatic of his romantic bias, his love of the music’s interior glow. And despite his prodigious command in, say, the final pages of both the First and Fourth Concertos, there is never a hint of bombast or a more superficial brand of fire-and-brimstone virtuosity.
Previn works hand in glove with his soloist. Clearly, this is no one-night partnership but the product of the greatest musical sympathy, of a mutual skill and affection. The opening of the Third Concerto’s Intermezzo (where the orchestra momentarily step into the limelight) could hardly be given with a more idiomatic, brooding melancholy, a perfect introduction for all that is to follow. Naturally, you will have your own favourite individual performances (mine include Richter in the First – Chant du Monde, 10/90, nla – and Second Concertos, Gilels in the Third and Michelangeli in the Fourth) but I have to say that if you want to hear playing which captures Rachmaninov’s always elusive, opalescent centre then Ashkenazy is hard to beat. No more personal or deeply felt performances exist.'

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