Russian State Symphony Orchestra (Yablonsky) – ‘Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos.2 and 3’ A DVD-Audio review by Chris Salocks

I’ve enjoyed many of Konstantin Scherbakov’s other recordings, such as his EMI disc of Johann Strauss transcriptions and his series of Godowsky recordings on Marco Polo, and was looking forward to hear what he would do with these magnificent Rachmaninov concertos. (By the way, I use the adjective, “magnificent”, advisedly, since Rachmaninov’s works are still too often the objects of condescension by prim little aesthetes who profess to be embarrassed by the music’s heartfelt generosity of spirit, and who seem to fear the works’ intricacies and depths which, in any case, they can never hope to understand or master – I think pianist Angela Hewitt is the latest high-profile example of this type of would-be connoisseur.)

But enough ranting! How does Scherbakov fare in this high-stakes field, with so much competition (not the least of which comes from the composer himself in 1929 and 1939/40 recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra)? In the main, these new performances are a bit disappointing – solid and professional, to be sure, but their intensity tends to burn at an awfully low level. I’m thinking of places such as the fugato in the middle of the finale of the Second Concerto: for various reasons, it sounds too comfortable and uninflected as rendered by Scherbakov and Yablonsky. Listen to Rachmaninov’s own recording, and you’ll hear the composer ratcheting the tempo up a notch just before this section and thereby increasing the excitement. (The actual tempo increase to “presto” is marked in the score a few lines before the fugato begins.) But even some pianists who keep the fugato comparatively held back (more in line with their main tempo), such as Sviatoslav Richter in his splendid Deutsche Grammophon recording with Wislocki, are often able to generate intensity through changes in dynamics or color – or, in Richter’s case, through a main tempo which itself is already faster than we normally encounter.

On the other hand, much of Scherbakov’s playing sounds subtle and lyrical, due partly to the superb integration of the solo instrument with the orchestra. So many recordings of these concertos overemphasize the solo piano at the expense of the orchestra – so much so that listeners are sometimes disappointed when they hear these works at concerts, where the soloist can never hope to dominate the balance as much as on recordings. But the engineers on this recording have resisted the temptation to over-balance the soloist, with the result that one can hear a level of both refinement and delicacy in these performances rarely matched on rival recordings. Inexperienced listeners might wish for a more prominent piano within the balance, but I applaud the realism of this recording and the discretion of the engineers. In addition, the tone of the piano itself is exemplary, with an equality among registers that ought to be more the norm in concerto recordings.

Indeed, the overall recording quality of this new disc is excellent, as is often the case with the Naxos Russian-sourced DVD-Audio titles, although I do wish this company would get with the program and give us hi-res multi-channel recordings at the 96kHz sampling rate we deserve, rather than the 48kHz rate they’ve employed for all their DVD-Audio discs except for their initial release (Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’). Even so, the sonics have a wonderful dimensionality (both front-to-back and side-to-side), which makes the various CDs I used for general assessment sound comparatively flat – the more one listens to multi-channel recordings, the more one becomes aware of (and impatient with!) the limitations of just two channels.

Incidentally, the Scherbakov/Yablonsky performances have also been released simultaneously in SACD multi-channel format, which I was also able to audition. In comparison to the DVD-Audio, the SACD exhibited a slight loss of focus, with a further apparent distancing of the performers, and a slightly more hissy sound to the cymbal crashes.

So what of the competition in these works? Of course, there is currently no competition in the DVD-Audio format, but of fairly recent recordings in other formats, I’ve been most impressed with Krystian Zimerman’s performance of the Second Concerto (with Ozawa on Deutsche Grammophon). Never in the last 20 or 30 years have I heard this concerto rendered with such perfection of voicing and detail combined with such drive and brilliance. Unfortunately, this is the very type of recording I was complaining about previously, where the soloist is captured way larger than life at the expense of the orchestra. Even so, if you can put up with the skewed balance, this is great Rachmaninov playing.

As for recent recordings of the Third Concerto, nothing stands out in the way that Zimerman’s recording of the Second Concerto does. I find Pletnev’s performance with Rostropovitch a self-indulgent disaster. (Pletnev has to be one of the most exasperating artists now before the public – he seems to have the technique to do anything he wants, but his interpretive instincts often seem to lead him sadly astray.) The Volodos and Lugansky recordings (on Sony and Warner Classics respectively) are pretty good, especially the Lugansky, which is a marked improvement on his earlier recording of this concerto (with Shpiller on Arcade Classics). I’m excepting Jon Nakamatsu’s recording on Harmonia Mundi from consideration here, owing to my position as Jon’s accompanist.

Among the classic recordings of these works, besides the aforementioned Richter account of the Second Concerto, I’m partial to the various recordings by Byron Janis (Mercury and RCA/BMG), despite the cuts he makes in the Third Concerto. (The Mercury performances with Dorati are targeted for SACD release in another month or two.) Zoltan Kocsis offers bracing performances on Philips, which are severely compromised by synthetic, multi-microphoned engineering. Argerich in the Third Concerto (Philips) is another great performance somewhat compromised by less than ideal engineering. Finally, Rachmaninov’s own performances are indispensable, despite their primitive recording technology – their best incarnation sound-wise is on Naxos Historical.

To return in summary to the Scherbakov/Yablonsky performances, these are beautiful renderings of the lyrical sections of both concertos, but the performances would have benefited immensely in the more brilliant sections if only the performers had increased their speed by a couple of metronome notches. Some housekeeping details: Scherbakov plays the Third Concerto complete (as has been standard for many years) and employs the superior, lighter-textured cadenza in the first movement (used by Rachmaninov in his own recording).