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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30 (1909):
Allegro ma non tanto; Intermezzo; Finale. Alla breve
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Piano Concerto No.3 in C major, Op.26 (1921): Andante – Allegro; Thema. Andantino – Variation I L’istesso tempo; Variation II Allegro; Variation III Allegro moderato; Variation IV Andantino meditativo; Variation V Allegro giusto -; Thema L’istesso tempo; Allegro ma non troppo
Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
Russian National Orchestra/Mstislav Rostropovich
Recorded Sept 2002: Moscow, State Conservatory, Great Hall.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 471 576-2 [71’26]

Sometimes the yellow beast of DG gives a hyperbolic roar of self-promotion before it hurls its latest creation onto the shelves, ultimately causing mere ripples in the musical world. In the relative absence of such attention-seeking cries, I find myself looking in surprise at the magisterial waves created by these eminent Russian musicians with wonderful performances of two popular concertos. Originally advertised on the DG website as pairing the Tchaikovsky 1st piano concerto with Rachmaninov’s third, somewhere along the line the Tchaikovsky was replaced by Prokofiev’s third, perhaps to avoid doubling repertoire recently released by Lang Lang (DG 474 291-2).

When one is used to hearing soloists pulling all the strings in these pieces, it is refreshing to hear an orchestra playing with such involvement, as equal rather than submissive partners. I recall one particular passage in the first movement of the Rachmaninov about one minute before the cadenza (Pletnev opts for the larger of the two), where violins cheep from one speaker to the other producing an eerie atmosphere, expertly captured by the sound engineers. The whimsical dialogue between Pletnev and the orchestra he founded reflects the pianist’s intimate knowledge of the score, presumably gained from his experience conducting these pieces, and he is instinctively aware when to command centre-stage and when to play second fiddle. And even though we may be spoilt customers for the Rachmaninov (according to one enthusiastic collector of the ‘Rach 3’, there are almost two hundred commercially available recordings), this performance deserves to be placed ahead of, or at least equal with, any other modern recordings of the piece. It may not have the immediate appeal of, e.g. Volodos/Levine (SK64384) or Goerner/Sinaisky (VEL 3051), but listen to it imagining yourself sitting right there inside the concert hall, and you should find an extra dimension of music-making that can be too readily and easily overlooked.

The Prokofiev generates excitement not through sparkling tempi and quicksilver fingers (cf Argerich/Abbado DG 447438-2), but through a motoric sense of rhythm, underlined by chiselled staccatos and finely-controlled dynamics. The trademark variety of tone that Pletnev conjures from the keyboard is such that there are occasions where it becomes difficult to tell where the piano ends and orchestra begins. However, as a result of keeping the tempo and volume in the third movement on a tight leash, perhaps they can be criticised for failing to build up enough angular momentum to launch the final flourish heavenwards. Much of the enjoyment to be gained here, then, is in listening to the thoughtful craft with which these artists approach this piece rather than the final product they produce.

Altogether, this is an outstanding release.

Michael McMillan

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