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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 [32:24]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 [42:45]
Yevgeny Sudbin (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
rec. 2017, Maida Vale Studios, London
BIS BIS2338 SACD [75:12]

Yevgeny Sudbin has taken his time recording Rachmaninov’s works for piano and orchestra. The first issue was way back in 2008 with the original version of the Fourth Piano Concerto, (coupled with the second concerto of Medtner) with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra under Grant Llewellyn. For the Paganini Variations and Piano Concerto No.1, Sudbin’s recordings were fillers (some fillers!) for Rachmaninov Symphonies with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and conductor Lan Shui. All were highly praised at the time. Now Sudbin finishes his cycle with concertos Nos. 2 and 3 recorded in London, Yevgeny Sudbin’s home town, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and chief conductor Sakari Oramo. Despite (or maybe because of) its long gestation and recordings spread across three continents, it’s one of the most notable of the modern cycles.

The opening solo of the Second Concerto is played as marked, not at the now traditional broader 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. But we usually hear portentous slow chords and an increase in speed for the theme. But then Rachmaninov’s recording does something similar, and hitherto only Stephen Hough, in his Hyperion set of the concertante piano works, has really gone back to the score. But now Sudbin is equally strict, and the passage works better if, as here, the pianist establishes the main tempo at the start, because this is not just a series of preludial chords, but the germinal motif of the work. Sudbin’s scrupulous observance occurs throughout the movement, often bringing out some piano detail not so often heard.

Oramo ensures the orchestral part is just as observant too, so we get a real picture of the work come scritto – or ‘as it is written’, as Toscanini liked to insist. The Adagio sostenuto begins coolly, with a liquid clarinet solo and disarming simplicity from Sudbin, but the passion flowers as the movement proceeds, becoming animated and stirring, with a noble climax in the closing pages with its long string lines. The finale follows the same pattern with a steady tempo (as the metronome mark implies), but with growing excitement and indeed the requisite nobility in the big tune, the reprise of which is satisfying without quite pulling out every stop perhaps. Oramo and the orchestra are superb collaborators too, woodwinds and horn relishing their lyrical moments.

The Third Concerto was the composer’s own favourite of the five concertante works, and he made a famous recording of it with Ormandy, but one with cuts, so that is a memento of a great artist more than a supplement to the score. Once again Sudbin and Oramo proceed from the text, and give another fine performance – some of the orchestral virtuosity needs to match that of the pianist in this work, and the BBC players are splendid. Sudbin again finds a nobility and a dignity in this music that some deny is even there. He plays superbly throughout, and in the big first movement cadenza he opts for the ossia (longer, harder, more dense and chordal) version. Even the composer didn’t record or play that (according to Horowitz, who gave it as the reason he didn’t play it either). Perhaps only the last ounce of temperament or individuality is lacking in the solo part, but that is it to be hypercritical of a fine achievement. Valentina Lisitsa on Decca is a fair modern example of an almost equally scrupulous but more extrovert approach. But this pairing of the two most popular of the Rachmaninov concertos should take its place among the best of recent times.
Roy Westbrook



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