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Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3, Symphonic Dances / Spano, Ohlsson, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Rachmaninov / Spano / Atlanta Sym Orch / Ohlsson
Release Date: 10/25/2011 
Label:  Aso Media (Label)   Catalog #: 1003   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  Garrick Ohlsson
Conductor:  Robert Spano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

RACHMANINOFF Piano Concerto No. 3. Symphonic Dances Robert Spano, cond; Garrick Ohlsson (pn); Atlanta SO ASO MEDIA 1003 (79:37)

Garrick Ohlsson’s complete Beethoven cycle was somewhat uneven, in large part due to the long timeframe and multiple venues in which it was recorded. But the pianist’s recent Liszt recital, reviewed in Fanfare 35:2, reminded me once again of what an amazing artist Ohlsson is. More than anything, Read more it was his Liszt CD that whetted my appetite to hear this new “Rach 3,” recorded in Atlanta’s Symphony Hall.

I can anticipate the raised eyebrows of readers who are already saying to themselves, “This concerto is jointly owned by Horowitz, Kapell, Cliburn, Janis, and, more recently, perhaps, Lang Lang and Arcadi Volodos. Can Ohlsson or anyone else, for that matter, compete successfully in this arena?” The answer is a resounding “YES!”

Ohlsson’s “Rach 3” is, first, a dazzling display of keyboard technique surpassed by none. And second—no less thanks to Robert Spano, the Atlanta Symphony players, and this stunning recording—you can hear the minutest details of Rachmaninoff’s score as never before, reinforcing my opinion, at least, that the composer was as gifted and brilliant a symphonist as he was a pianist.

The booklet note recounts the story of the second performance of the concerto, which took place in Carnegie Hall on January 16, 1910, with Rachmaninoff at the piano and Gustav Mahler leading the New York Philharmonic. Mahler had so exhausted the orchestra in rehearsal, demanding repetition after repetition of the smallest details in the score, that Rachmaninoff feared the musicians would revolt. When, after hours of grueling drill, some of the players began packing up to leave, Mahler shouted, “As long as I am sitting, no musician has a right to get up!”

The hard work paid off, for according to contemporary accounts the reaction of the audience and critics to that second performance of the concerto was even more enthusiastic than it had been two days earlier at the premiere under Walter Damrosch leading the Symphony Society of New York.

It may be a bit of a stretch to compare Robert Spano to Gustav Mahler, but the preparation of the Atlanta Symphony for this performance must have been rigorous, and it pays off in an integration of the solo piano part with the orchestra to a degree I’ve rarely heard in this work. To put it another way, in not a few recordings of the piece I’ve encountered, the orchestra is reduced to a backdrop for the pianist’s muscle-flexing gymnastics and, in the process, much of Rachmaninoff’s subtle counterpointing and dialoging with the piano are lost. Here in Ohlsson’s and Spano’s performance, we have a true symphonic concerto.

In no way, however, should this be taken to mean that Ohlsson shrinks from his star athlete role. This is tremendously powerful playing, with brilliant fireworks that blind the ear, if such a mixed metaphor makes sense. But it’s in Rachmaninoff’s long-spun chromatic melodies that Ohlsson is able to show his tender side, putting out tendrils of unfurling lyricism that open ever wider to embrace the sun’s rays.

The Symphonic Dances, though very well executed, doesn’t have quite the panache in Spano’s reading I’ve heard brought to the music by others. I know it’s an older recording, but Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the ensemble for which Rachmaninoff wrote the piece, had a special flair for it. Among more recent versions, I’ve been highly impressed by Vladimir Jurowski’s recording with the London Philharmonic live from the Royal Festival Hall. And it seems I’m not alone in my admiration; in Fanfare 29:5, Barry Brenesal called it some of the best sound he’d heard in Rachmaninoff orchestral recordings in years.

When it comes to Ohlsson’s and Spano’s performance of the concerto, however, I’m at a loss for encomiums and superlatives in recommending this release to you.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Piano no 3 in D minor, Op. 30 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  Garrick Ohlsson (Piano)
Conductor:  Robert Spano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1909; Russia 
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Conductor:  Robert Spano
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1940; USA 

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