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Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 [34:52]
…tudes-Tableaux, Op. 33 [23:14]
Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) Liebesleid (Arr. Rachmaninov) [4:51]
Franz Behr (1837-1898) Lachtšubchen, "Polka de WR" (Arr. Rachmaninov) [3:52]
Boris Giltburg (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Carlos Miguel Prieto
rec. 2016, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (concerto), 2016, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, Wales (piano solos)
NAXOS 8.573629 [66:58]

Boris Giltburg has already given us a fine Naxos disc of solo Rachmaninov, with the Moments Musicaux and the second set of …tudes-Tableaux, Op.39 and here we have the earlier set of …tudes-Tableaux, Op.33, coupled with the Second Piano Concerto. It is perhaps perverse to call the concerto a coupling, when it is the longer work and – according to a recent analysis of piano concerto performances between 2010 and 2016 - the sixth most popular (or at least performed) piano concerto in the world. But it is Op.33 that should attract owners of that earlier Naxos disc, who are likely to own the concerto perhaps in several versions already. So let us start with the solo work.

The …tudes-Tableaux Op.33 really is a set of miniatures, with only No.3 going over four minutes, and with four of the eight pieces being less than three minutes long. So there is a need for the concentration of the pianist to match the concision of the composer, and that is what we get here. In each case the mood is established at once, with Giltburg able fully to enter the world of each of these quite contrasted works. The syncopated march of No.1 is most compelling, its five different time signatures no impediment here to its sounding entirely of a piece, including the shift to a quiet ending. Max Harrison in his book on the composer remarks of No.2 that it “seems to conjure the melody out of the accompaniment” and Giltburg’s poised performance captures this effect perfectly. No.3 opens in a very solemn C minor and moves to a lyrical C major, and here the transition is so seamless we are barely aware of the join. But there is insight from Giltburg in each of these pieces, even those sometimes thought elusive. He argues in the booklet that Op.33 can well be performed as a set, despite having no ‘No.4’ and a strange publication history, and with this performance he makes a good case for it as a satisfying opus to hear straight through. Giltburg is close in timing and mood to the few of the Op.33 pieces that Rachmaninov himself recorded, but still has something individual to say. The same is true of the two charming transcriptions, also recorded by the composer, that close the disc.

The concerto displays the same qualities as the studies. The opening solo is at the traditional broad tempo. The composer’s marking of moderato and minim = 66 followed by a tempo when the strings enter with the first subject, implies a single speed for the whole passage. Here we have the familiar portentous slow chords and a slight increase in speed for the theme. But then Rachmaninov’s own recording does more or less the same, and only Stephen Hough, in his superb Hyperion set of all the concertante piano works, has dared to correct him. Giltburg shows at other points that he probably knows the composer’s recording, but then he is everywhere completely inside the idiom, which matters more than following any specific model of course. At the famous Maestoso - alla marcia section Giltburg struts effectively but does not overdo that stirring moment, then segues expertly into the ensuing meno mosso, where he properly observes the pp marking. The Adagio sostenuto avoids any ‘Brief Encounter’ sentimentality, for Giltburg is scrupulous in observing all the slurs and hairpins of the phrasing, and plays with alluring tone throughout. The RSNO do all that Carlos Miguel Prieto asks of them as well, even if the wind solos are occasionally a bit reticent – they have some fine music here and there could perhaps be more of a chamber musical collaborative feeling at times. The finale retains its dignity without sacrificing excitement, or indeed nobility in the glorious big tune, whose reprise provides a most satisfying sense of arrival. There are innumerable fine recordings of this unsinkable masterpiece, going right back to the composer himself, and here is another. It won’t replace your personal favourite I suspect, but it never does less than justice to the score.

The pianist wrote the fine booklet notes and even took the cover photo, but of course it is his playing that is the reason to get this CD. The engineers have captured the sound of the Fazioli piano almost ideally, and balanced it convincingly in the concerto. Rachmaninov’s music for piano, with and without orchestra, is being superbly well served on disc nowadays, and this Naxos CD is yet another notable example.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: Dan Morgan



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