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Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (1909) [43:40]
Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42 (1931) [18:11]
Boris Giltburg (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Carlos Miguel Prieto
rec. 2016, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow (concerto); Wyastone Estate Concert Hall, Monmouth, Wales (Variations)
NAXOS 8.573630 [61:59]

This is a very fine CD indeed and I recommend it with all possible enthusiasm. It is, however, a difficult CD to review.

Writing about the Variations on a Theme of Corelli in a long and comprehensive booklet note, Boris Giltburg makes much of the work’s narrative character. This is an interesting point of view, given that it is easy to hear, even without reference to the score, where most of the twenty variations begin and end. You would imagine any narrative to be choppy at best, but such is Rachmaninov’s control of dramatic development that the ear is led on from the opening to the close as if the work is a single flow. This effect is underlined by Giltburg’s performance. I don’t know how many takes were involved, but the impression given is of a reading taken on the wing, like a live performance. The recorded sound is exemplary, lifelike, placing the listeners in very good seats in the hall. Forte passages have all the power needed and others more restrained have the intimacy that Rachmaninov’s masterly writing requires.

The idea of a narrative also preoccupies Giltburg when he discusses the Third Concerto. It is interesting that he places the work alongside Brahms’s two concertos as the finest examples of integrated symphonic writing in works of this form. Once again, the performance supports his point of view. Each new section and idea blends into the next in seamless fashion, and the work unfolds naturally and logically.

Giltburg’s insistence on the narrative character of the concerto is so striking that when listening to other performances of this remarkable work by way of comparison I found myself looking for it there too. I don’t think anybody could argue that Martha Argerich is anything other than stunning in this work (with Riccardo Chailly on Philips) and hers, a live performance, offers its own rewards in terms of seeing the work as a journey. She brings the concerto to a truly electrifying finish, as does Byron Janis with Antal Dorati (on Mercury, a recording that dates from 1961). The performance that perhaps comes closest to Gilburg’s in its disciplined and almost forensic approach is that by Leif Ove Andsnes with Pappano on Warner. Both pianists affect a direct style of communication, combining romantic freedom and a natural approach to rubato with crisp fingerwork in the faster, dryer passages. Neither pianist seems interested in seeing the work as a barnstorming, virtuoso exercise, and both performances show striking control of the ebb and flow of the work. As I write this, however, I am struck by the thought that any one of these three alternative performances, not to mention many others, might strike the listener in the same way. Notwithstanding certain differences of approach from one moment to the next, each one will surely satisfy the listener. When Giltburg evokes the narrative element of the work the listener is persuaded that it is audible in the performance. Would I have thought this had the pianist not drawn my attention to it? Are the rival performances deficient in this particular aspect? I have read a number of reviews of this disc already, and harbour a vague suspicion that some commentators took their cue from Giltburg’s own observations in the booklet.

In any event, these two performances are very fine indeed. Giltburg lacks nothing in respect of the technical prowess demanded, and that includes the original, massive cadenza in the concerto. He produces a most beautiful sound and manages not to compromise that beauty in louder passages. The orchestral playing is excellent under Carlos Miguel Prieto, providing a most sensitive accompaniment in a work whose orchestral writing is beautifully fashioned albeit largely subsidiary to the solo part. When needed, however, the orchestra rises to the occasion and produces richly sonorous playing of great character. Andrew Keener and his recording team provide splendid sound. This is, then, a totally satisfying performance of a work that many readers will already have in their collection. Its modest price and interesting coupling would be reasons enough to add it as a supplement, but the performance of the concerto is certainly fine enough to serve as an introduction to the work and even as a sole representative on collectors’ shelves.

William Hedley

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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