Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 2 & 3

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was a rare combination of renowned pianist, conductor and  composer who may have been the last of the major "romantics" in Russia before he fled his homeland after the fall of the czarist regime and the onset of the Soviet Union.

This release by China's Yedang Entertainment Company pairs the amazing second and third piano concertos of Rachmaninov and from recordings decades apart.  The concertos are landmarks in the form that amaze and awe with their impeccable melodies and remarkable harmonic structures.  These performances, at least to this amateur's ear, are excellent and display great sensitivity to the material.

The second concerto came after the young Rachmaninov suffered a terrible psychological trauma when his first sympony, premiered in St. Petersburg in 1897 was a chaotic failure.  Seeking treatment from a neurologist, who used autosuggestion to get the composer to approach his next project with more confidence.  The result was the second piano concerto, which the liner notes, suggest "isa fully integrated work that reveals the composer's authentic idiom."  The dedication to Dr. Nikolai Dahl, the piece, the author of the notes, "was ever so richly merited."

The piece is full of soaring, majestic and stately melodies that are achingly beautiful and affirming, redolent of the composer's hero, Tchaikovsky, especially in the first two movements, while the final movement brings in some powerful and intense dymanics with the orchestra amidst moments of introspection.  Recorded in earely 1959 by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Kurt Sanderline, and featuring the amazing playing of soloist Sviatoslav Richter, the performance is spellbinding.

The third concerto appeared in late 1909 with the pianist debuting the work in New York with a repeat performance a couple months later at Carnegie Hall under the direction of the great Gustav Mahler, whose rigorous rehearsing and attention to detail highly impressed Rachmaninov.  The composer worked frantically to prepare the work before his American concert tour and it was said that, after the ink dried and he heade by boat for New York, he was "practicing the solo part during the sea voyage on a silent keyboard for fear of disturbing his fellow passengers."

There were some issues, however.  As scored, the piece was long for the form (even though conductor Mahler was known for massive, impossibly long symphonies at the time) and Rachmaninov shaved off some ten minutes, or about a quarter of the work, to fit the programming mandates of the era.  Critics were also put off by the complexity of the piece, which quickly became known as a technically daunting work for pianists to take on.

In the February 1991 performance, on the heels of perestroika and glasnost and as the USSR neared collapse,Viktoria Postnikova plays with great sensitivity, handling the work with great power and aplomb, and the support of the doncuting of the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra by her husband Gennady Rozhdestvensky, is also stunning.

Even the untrained can hear how demanding playing the piano parts must have been, but it is also the orchestration that can be very challenging with shifting rhythms and remarkable uses of counterpoint.  There is, too, a stunning balance between softer, quieter passages and the more volatile and emotive elements that make this work stand out.  Restored to its full length, it is a powerful, rich and uplifting experience that shows Rachmaninov at his full power as a composer.

Would this have been possible without the turmoil of the first symphony and the valuable work done by Dr. Dahl?

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