Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

SERGEI RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Historic Recordings of the Piano Concertos   Sergei Rachmaninov (piano) The Philadelphia Orchestraconducted by Leopold Stokowski/Eugene Ormandy NAXOS 8.110601 (Nos 2 and 3) [65.10] NAXOS 8.110602 (Nos 1 and 4 and Paganini Rhapsody) [71.13] mono 2 CDs only available separately


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 winners.

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.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

Reviews from previous months

Reviews carry sales links but you can also purchase from:

Return to Index