Déjà Review: this review was first published in April 2010 and the recording is still available.

Rachmaninov pcs AV2192

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1901) [33:42]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909) [41:58]
Simon Trpčeski (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko
rec. 2009, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK
Avie AV2192 [75:48]

Very recently both Rob Barnett and I warmly welcomed an Avie recording of orchestral music by Rachmaninov by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Vasily Petrenko. Now the same artists have teamed up with the young Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski (b. 1979) for a coupling of Rachmaninov’s most popular piano concertos. I was very enthusiastic about the sound quality of the preceding disc as well as the performances so I was glad to see that Avie have used the same team of producer John Fraser and engineer David A Pigott.

For comparison purposes I had the chance to listen to the Hyperion recordings of both concertos by Stephen Hough working with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Litton. Hough is a pianist I admire very much, though I’d not heard his Rachmaninov concerto recordings before. Those performances were taken down ‘live’ in concerts whereas these Trpčeski versions were made under studio conditions. Hough’s versions were originally released in a two-disc set of all Rachmaninov’s five works for piano and orchestra. My colleagues Kevin Sutton and Colin Clarke were both extremely enthusiastic about this set, though I see that Christopher Howell was rather less enthusiastic, especially about the Second and Third concertos. More recently, Hyperion has released the Hough accounts of the Second and Third concertos disc as a separate disc, which puts them into direct competition with the new arrival from Avie. Stephen Francis Vasta praised Hough’s pianism but expressed some reservations about the contributions of the conductor and orchestra.

This is Trpčeski’s first concerto disc, though he has made some acclaimed recital recordings. Much though I enjoy the greatly-loved Second Concerto, I esteem the mighty Third even more highly so I was particularly interested to see how he would measure up in this demanding piece, which is rightly described in the booklet note as “a crowning glory of the so-called ‘Silver Age’ of Imperial Russian culture.”

From the very start he makes a favourable impression, voicing the long opening melody with simple eloquence and a fine, singing tone. He and Petrenko set a pace that seems to me to be absolutely ideal for the music; just fast enough to provide the necessary momentum but with enough spaciousness to allow the lyricism to flower. By contrast Stephen Hough is appreciably quicker and when the orchestra takes up the melody (at 0:52 in his performance) the tempo increases still further. To be frank, Hough and his conductor, Andrew Litton, make the music sound rushed and almost superficial. I’m sure some will find it a bracing change but to me it sounds like Rachmaninov-lite.

The first movement of the concerto is hugely demanding for the soloist, both technically and musically. However, Trpčeski seems consistently in command. He opts for the earlier, much longer cadenza (10:24-12:58). This massive cadenza is ferociously difficult but it draws from Trpčeski a commanding display of pianism, which is very exciting to hear. Hough opts for the shorter – but no less pyrotechnic – cadenza and delivers it extremely well. Readers may get an inkling of the somewhat faster speeds adopted for parts of the Hough performance by the fact that he arrives at the cadenza at 9:47.

The second movement is entitled ‘Intermezzo’, though it is effectively a series of variations. The late Michael Steinberg describes the movement as “all adventure and event”. Supported by some fine, rich orchestral playing, Trpčeski gives a most persuasive reading. For much of the movement’s course the music is stirringly romantic, often brooding. Soloist and conductor achieve a sweeping climax (from 6:26) and the later scherzo-like episode is deftly handled. Compared with their reading of the first movement Hough and Litton adopt much more “conventional” pacing in this intermezzo and this is much more to my taste. In the finale both pianists offer some fantastic examples of virtuoso finger work and both performances have plenty of dash about them. Trpčeski is also very convincing in his pacing of the more reflective passages. Hough’s performance is taken from a live concert and perhaps this accounts for his faster basic tempo. I find that the music can take such an energetic speed more than was the case in the first movement and Hough offers some dazzling playing. However, I think he sacrifices some grandeur – which Trpčeski does not – and while I’m sure his reading of this movement – and, indeed, of the whole concerto – would be exhilarating when heard in the concert hall I think that Trpčeski’s reading is more satisfying for repeated listening.

It must be difficult for any pianist to essay the Second Concerto on disc. What on earth can one find to say fresh about a work that’s been so often recorded and that is in danger of being regarded as a “war horse”? Should one try to say something “fresh” or simply offer a superbly played, “central” interpretation? My sense is that Stephen Hough allies himself with those who opt for a “fresh” approach while Trpčeski is a “central” interpreter. That seems to be apparent right at the start where the Macedonian plays those famous opening chords with impressive weight and at what one might call a traditional tempo. Hough, by contrast, plays the chords quickly and in what sounds, to be honest, a rather routine way. There’s no sense of rhetoric and I felt cheated. Just out of interest I revisited the composer’s own 1929 recording with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Naxos 8.110601) and his pacing of these chords is somewhere between the two but closer, on balance, to Trpčeski . There’s an old canard that one never gets a second chance to make a first impression and, though perhaps this was wrong of me, I think Hough’s treatment of this opening rather influenced my view thereafter of his performance of the first movement at least. It’s noticeable that his performance of the concerto lasts 32:26 and the main difference of timing between the two versions comes in this first movement, where Hough shaves nearly one minute off Trpčeski’s timing.

I greatly enjoyed Trpčeski’s account of the first movement – and his collaboration with Petrenko and the RLPO. He has all the depth of tone and pianistic weight that the music needs but, just as importantly, he’s able to play with a filigree lightness of touch in the many passages where Rachmaninov demands it. The RLPO offers excellent playing and one is struck by the number of occasions here and throughout the work where Rachmaninov gives the burden of the musical argument to the orchestra with the soloist in an accompanying role. The firm tone of the orchestra’s string section is very satisfying and there are also a good number of fine woodwind solos to savour.

The second movement is ushered in with lovely flute and clarinet solos, cushioned on a soft bed of string tone. Trpčeski plays with refined delicacy when he joins in. The brief scherzo-like episode is dispatched with élan by all concerned. After the short cadenza I loved the beguiling melancholy with which the violins gently play the main melody while Trpčeski provides lovely decoration. In this same movement Hough is similarly excellent though he does rather press on at times. Generally his is a lighter conception of the music – though perfectly valid, I feel – and I relished the panache with which he and the Dallas players toss off the scherzo section.

The finale opens energetically in Liverpool – and in Dallas also. When the Big Tune appears for the first time Petrenko ensures it’s delivered tastefully and quite simply. Much of the Liverpool performance of this movement is red-blooded and passionate but it never tips over into excess. In fact this performance by Trpčeski and Petrenko is full of integrity and also light and shade. When the apotheosis of the Big Tune is reached (10:22) it’s ardent and powerful. There’s much to enjoy in the Hough/Litton traversal also, not least an admirable lightness of touch by the soloist. However, there were a number of occasions when the playing of the quicker music was very fast indeed, verging almost on the unstable. Perhaps this is part and parcel of the momentum of a live performance.

A word should be said about the recorded sound. The Hyperion recording has the performers set back a bit more from the microphones than is the case with the Avie recording. I quite like that as it conveys the feel of a concert hall and the orchestra is reported with more left-to-right space. The Avie recording is more forward and full- blooded. To be honest, having waxed lyrical about the sound on their previous disc of purely orchestral music I’m not quite so sure about the sound achieved this time. Trpčeski’s piano is very prominent and whilst that allows us to appreciate his splendid playing and tone this does to be rather at the expense of the orchestra. In fact, at least as much orchestral detail registers on the Hyperion release despite – or due to – the slightly more distanced placing of the performers from the microphones.

On one of the occasions when I was listening to this disc I read through a pair of essays, one on each of the two concertos, by the late Michael Steinberg, from which I’ve already quoted. Towards the end of his essay on the Third Concerto Steinberg has this to say. “As in the Second Concerto, Rachmaninov sees the soloist not merely as someone who can sing soulfully and thunder imposingly, but as an alert, flexible, responsive musician who knows how to listen, blend and accompany.” I’d say that in both of these performances Simon Trpčeski fits the bill admirably. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss the Hough recordings – he’s far too able and thoughtful a pianist for that – but my preference is for this new Trpčeski coupling. A follow-up disc of the First and Fourth Concertos together with the ‘Paganini’ Rhapsody is on the way from Avie and that’s eagerly awaited. For now, however, this present disc is a fine achievement, which I’ve enjoyed immensely.

John Quinn

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