Piano Concerto No 1 (1891) rec 1940
Piano Concerto No 2 (1901) rec 1929
Piano Concerto No 3 (1909) rec 1939/40
Piano Concerto No 4 (1926) rec 1941
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) rec 1934
These reissues at Naxos's irresistible bargain price should be sure-fire
Mark Obert-Thorn is extremely familiar with these recordings having produced
previous Biddulph transfers. Here he has engineered some remarkably clear
sound from the much 'travelled' matrices. Hiss is there, of course, so the
CEDAR-2 de-clicking module has not been used to dire excess. Rest assured
that the distraction level of the hiss is vestigial. Only the scorch-baked
Death Valley string sound of the second piano concerto comes across as at
all deficient. That is more to do with the intrinsic limitations of an old
recording than with any misjudgement on sound 'alchemy'. We are, after all,
talking about a recording dating back seventy years. The others are pretty
ancient but none vie with the 1929 recording in terms of aural challenge.
The performances are surely well known to many and they will gain a new life
and new listeners with this democratically accessible pair of discs. Rachmaninov
(once known for having driven Harpo Marx to distraction with his constant
repetition of a phrase from one of his works when the two stayed at the same
hotel in adjacent rooms during the thirties) presents a typically lugubrious
sound-picture. That said his timings are often fleeter than later pianists.
He is a master of pacing and colour bringing both the fourth and first concertos
out in the most attractive light. The first is a much-under-rated work and
here vies with the lovely Scriabin concerto in its dreamy romance and barbed
heroism. The Fourth too comes up tawnily glowing; fresh as the proverbial
paint and rich in eloquent detail.
The composer's own performances must be taken as having a special standing
and deliver a stern eloquence. In terms of visceral charge Rachmaninov gives
place to Horowitz and Argerich (Philips) in the Third and to Michelangeli
(with Ettore Gracis) in the fourth. Richter's famous DG of the second (with
Wislocki) is still a force in the land. The optimum single set to date is
the Earl Wild (Chandos or Chesky).
There are good notes by Keith Anderson and decent cover photos from the Lebrecht
Collection. This is a handsomely presented set from a source the packaging
of which sometimes looks less than poised from the design aspect. Here they
have the laurels and the crown.
If you rely on these performances as a library version you will deny yourself
the detail and depth of a true stereo age recording. To have this brace of
discs as a supplement is miraculously to time travel back to a world
many of us never knew. In three of the concertos to Rachmaninov freshly arrived
from Switzerland in his new and final home and in the case of the mercurial
phantasm of the Paganini Rhapsody to a composer presenting a work
completed in the very same year the recording was made. The buzz of discovery
and revelation hangs about that performance.
A very special artistically pleasurable set recommended only with a warning
to those who must have modern sound.