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Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 3, in D minor, Op. 30 (1909) [44:12]
Etude-Tableaux in A minor, Op. 39, No. 2 (1916) [7:46]
Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 (orchestral version) (1915) [9:14]
Symphony No. 3, in A minor, Op. 44 (1936) [47:42]
Denis Matsuev (Piano)
Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
rec. live, August 2019 at Concert Hall of the KKL Lucerne, Switzerland
Sound format: DTS HD Master Audio; PCM Stereo; Picture format: 16:9 NTSC Full HD
Reviewed in stereo
ACCENTUS Blu-ray ACC10487 [111 mins]

The annual Lucerne Festival is held every summer and draws many of the world's most distinguished artists in classical music, but due to the pandemic it was canceled this year. The Festival has its own orchestra, the ensemble used here of course, led since 2016 by Riccardo Chailly. The LFO was founded by the late Claudio Abbado (1933-2014), who served as its conductor from 2003 to 2013. It is a talent-rich, though seasonal ad hoc orchestra comprised of musicians from the better orchestras across Europe, a good many of them being principal players. It is highly regarded by some and has been called one of the finest orchestras in the world. My familiarity with their work from several recordings convinces me they are a world-class ensemble in every way. The concert here begins with the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto.

The soloist Denis Matsuev has been one of the leading Russian pianists for the past two decades, having been catapulted to international fame by winning the 1998 Tchaikovsky Competition. Here he delivers a very convincing account of this work, one of the most challenging piano concertos in the repertory. His first movement is paced rather moderately and opens with a well phrased, sensitive handling of the main theme, though I think the piano is given a little too much prominence in the sound field. Matsuev has a big tone and really doesn't need to have the sound reproduction tilted more than usual in his favor. Some detail from the wind instruments in the opening minutes is rather overwhelmed by his playing and thus not heard clearly enough. Although Matsuev is a little fussy with his use of rubato in the phrasing of the lyrical alternate theme, he nevertheless plays it with great sensitivity and feeling. The development section comes off with plenty of drama and power from both pianist and orchestra. Matsuev uses the more commonly played bigger and longer cadenza and delivers a splendid account of it, and the rest of the movement goes very well too.

The main theme in the second movement is phrased quite sensitively, though Matsuev gives it a more fiery and passionate character as it develops and becomes more intense. He avoids the tendency of many pianists to play this music too slowly, though at times he's a little too eager to push the tempo ahead. Still, this is a splendid performance of the second movement. The finale too comes across with plenty of passion and fire, Matsuev's tempos tending to be mainly on the moderate side and quite judicious. He imparts plenty of fire and virtuosity to the outer sections and phrases the lyrical music in the inner portion with great feeling, capturing every emotional tic in Rachmaninov's nostalgic and forlorn recollections of the first movement alternate theme. Riccardo Chailly draws excellent playing from the LFO throughout the concerto.

As for the competition, it is thick with fine accounts from Bernd Glemser (Naxos from 1996, not the earlier Naxos from 1992), Boris Giltburg (Naxos), Van Cliburn (RCA), Byron Janis (Mercury) and there are many others. I must say, I don't care for any of the Horowitz versions or for the Argerich, which has received much praise. On video Bronfman has a fine rendition on Medici DVD/Blu-ray despite the distraction of a crying baby in the background of his open-air Waldbühne venue. This is one reason why I would give Matsuev the edge in the video format, and he's also competitive with the others on CD mentioned here. That said, the Rachmaninov Third that should be issued on video is the utterly scorching, thrilling performance available on YouTube that features Russian-born American pianist Natasha Paremski with Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. It has to be heard (and seen) to be believed, the finale in particular! If it ever is released on disc, that would top them all. But you'll certainly be very well served by Matsuev and company here.

Matsuev's encore is Rachmaninov's A minor Etude-Tableaux, from the Op. 39 set. This is one of the more profound and intense of these works from either of the two sets and Matsuev delivers a most compelling performance. This is not typical encore fare and it's nice to have it presented instead of the often vapid showpieces that so many pianists select. It's one of the many Rachmaninov works, the Symphony No. 3 here also, featuring the Dies Irae theme, which is used in the Requiem Mass.

Next, Chailly and the Lucerne players deliver a very touching performance of Vocalise, apparently in the arrangement made by Rachmaninov himself. The composer's Symphony No. 3 closes the concert and it too is very convincing. Chailly again draws fine playing from the Lucerne players and points up much significant detail along the way in his well conceived vision of the score. His tempos are in the moderate to slightly brisk range and always fit the expressive character of the music. Thus, the warmth and lyricism of the first movement, especially in the phrasing of the big alternate theme, come through very convincingly here. The development section builds plenty of tension as Chailly shapes the way it accrues subtly with well chosen dynamics and accenting. The climactic moments come off powerfully and dramatically and the remainder of the movement is conceived and performed most effectively.

The ensuing panel features a somewhat less lush character in the two themes of the outer sections (Adagio ma non troppo), but quite colorful music in the Allegro vivace Scherzo that serves as the middle section. To me, this is a difficult movement to bring off, but Chailly does so with his intelligent and imaginative phrasing, wherein tempos, dynamics and rubato all come together as a seemingly perfect fit for the music. He is of course aided once again by his talented Lucerne players, especially by the fine solo work of the horn, harp, violin, flute and other woodwinds. The finale too is most convincing here, featuring the same kind of virtues from the conductor and the players. This is certainly one of the more competitive accounts of this symphony. Among the better old performances are Previn (RCA—I haven't heard his EMI version also with the LSO) and Svetlanov (Melodiya). An excellent account on Naxos from Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony dating to 2011 is my favorite among recent versions on CD. An earlier Slatkin performance on Vox with the Saint Louis SO is nearly as good. Chailly, however, appears to have the field to himself in the video realm and is not surpassed by this other competition on CD.

The sound reproduction, camera work and picture clarity are all quite fine, though as noted above I think the piano is given slightly too much prominence in the sound field. As all-Rachmaninov concerts go, this one features a dream team in fine form in the concerto and excellent performances in the other works.

Robert Cummings

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