Notes and Editorial Reviews
Rachmaninoff’s precocious op. 1 concerto does not get paired with the more famous Paganini Rhapsody too often on disc, unless as part of a complete cycle. The work is under-appreciated, particularly when one thinks of the fame its successor enjoys. After all, the first concerto contains the seeds of Rachmaninoff’s mature compositional style: large-scale gestures, an expansive melodic framework, harmonically rich orchestration and a virtuoso piano part that betrays the 18-year-old composer’s fearsome technique. Tchaikovsky is one obvious model, but Rachmaninoff also is unafraid to push the boundaries: listen to how the first movement cadenza breaks into the brass, as if to challenge the mighty opening flourish of Grieg’s Concerto.
Mikhail Pletnev was well established as a pianist in 1987, when this recording was made. He pounces into the work and keenly takes every obstacle in his stride. His fingering is clean and incisive. The sound of his instrument is nicely forward of the orchestra, which accompanies with assurance. Maybe “accompanies” gives the wrong impression, since the orchestra’s involvement is very much of equal weight and interest to the piano’s part. Libor Pešek maintains a nicely spurred forward pace. The second movement is akin to a nocturne and allows Rachmaninoff the opportunity to explore harmonic half-lights to good effect. Pešek draws sensitive playing from the Philharmonia, particularly with the discrete horn, flute, and clarinet parts; but it is Pletnev’s thoughtful playing that takes the lead throughout the movement. Bravura playing reestablishes itself as the final movement’s main concern. Pešek ensures that appropriately grand statements alternate with passages of more light-hearted frivolity. Contrast, ever important in Rachmaninoff, is employed here in a very Tchaikovskian vein, as rich legato orchestral lines are used. The movement is given appropriate liveliness in the playing of all concerned, helping it build inexorably to a full and dashing climax.
The Paganini Rhapsody gets a no-nonsense performance from Pletnev and Pešek. Favoring on the whole brisk tempos, this is a reading unafraid to give the music some space when required. In Variation 7, for example, the subtle pulsation of the pizzicato cellos and basses registers without being forced. Winds provide character and full brass some imposing splendor in Variation 10. Variation 12 is nicely phrased within the chosen tempo di minuetto, and the ensuing grand rumpus has all the more impact because of the restraint that went before. Variation 18, the most famous of them all, rises to the moment without being too over-blown. A nice sense of orchestral atmosphere is brought to the final sequence, with scurrying violins and percussion making their points with ease. The work ends with a quizzical flourish for the soloist: Pletnev plays it more soberly than some you will encounter. From the many available alternatives, I would recommend Mariss Jansons and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic with Mikhail Rudy at midprice (EMI 575516, 6 CDs). They give both works broader readings as part of their orchestral works cycle, but are no less involving. I’d give this disc, also midprice, a try for the concerto if you don’t have it, or if you don’t want to shell out for the other works Jansons offers.
FANFARE: Evan Dickerson
Works on This Recording
Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op. 43 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Mikhail Pletnev (Piano)
Written: 1934; USA
Be the first to review this title