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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 1 in D minor (1895) [45:32]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1 (1891, rev. 1917) [24:37]
Yevgeny Sudbin (piano)
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui
rec. August 2012, Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore.
BIS-SACD-2012 [70:58]

This release follows on from Lan Shui’s recordings of Rachmaninov’s Second and Third symphonies, and with reliably high quality engineering from BIS, superb orchestral playing and the superlative pianism of Yevgeny Sudbin this is likely to do well for all concerned.
 
Referencing Mikhail Pletnev’s excellent Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Symphony No. 1 (see review) shows similar timings between him and Shui, though the latter is a little more expansive in the third Larghetto movement. I like the comparison with Pletnev since both of these recordings share a sense of excitement which has an underlying fizz, although Shui also shares something of the more overt theatricality of Valeri Polyansky on Chandos (see review), falling somewhere in between the two. Tastes differ and mine has developed in Rachmaninov over time, meaning my feelings towards Polyansky have overtaken those which had previously given me a preference for Pletnev. Although the première of the work became a notorious disaster, Rachmaninov clearly sought to impress with his first symphonic outing, and the youthful energy and ardour in the work deserves to be allowed its full breadth and scale to be expressed. Shui certainly has an ear for the romantic passion behind the notes, though others have brought out the Russian spirit more in terms of orchestral colour - this based on the greater glossy shimmer he obtains, rather than more lower-frequency rich earthiness you hear from the Russian State SO on Chandos.
 
With this lighter, more transparent sound we have elegance rather than a gripping emotional journey undertaken in the Larghetto. The playing is beautiful throughout and this is a version I could live with fairly happily, but I do miss that tug at my heartstrings at certain points. The marvellous finale ticks all the boxes however, sounding really spectacular through SACD channels if perhaps a little percussion-heavy.
 
The work of a composer still in his teens, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1 has numerous terrific recordings from which to choose, and my default selection is that with Vladimir Ashkenazy and André Previn on Decca. These 1970s and 80s recordings still sound very good, and there is a synergy between these two performers and the LSO which is hard to beat. Talking of synergy, just as with the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini on BIS-1988, there is something about the chemistry with Sudbin added to the mix which raises Lan Shui and the Singapore SO from the merely excellent to something spectacularly special. Yes, the piano takes up a huge amount of the acoustic space, so this is something of a hyper-experience which stretches believability at times, but if you don’t mind your mind being blown then crank up the volume to the opening Vivace and feel your jaw drop. The eloquence of Sudbin’s playing in the central Andante is a joy, the orchestra responding warmly in the background, and the final Allegro vivace is another crackling set of fireworks, a display which delivers as much in musicality as it does in technical muscle.
 
This is a praiseworthy release though once again it is Yevgeny Sudbin who steals the show.
 
Dominy Clements

See also review of the 24/96 download by Dan Morgan 

Masterwork Index: Piano concerto 1 ~~ Symphony 1


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