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RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 2 in c; 5 Morceaux for Piano; Vocalise; Romance in A and Valse in A – soloists/Royal Liverpool Phil./ Alexander Vedurnikov – Erato

Rachmaninov large and intimate provides a fine hour for Alexander Tharaud and his associate Alexanders.

RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 2 in c, Op. 18; 5 Morceaux for Piano, Op. 3; Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14; Romance in A Major and Valse in A Major (for 6 hands) – Sabine Devieilhe, sop./ Alexander Tharaud, p./ Alexander Melnikov and Aleksander Madzar, p./ Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orch./ Alexander Vedernikov – Erato 019029595469, 66:41 (10/21/16) [Distr. by Warner Classics] ****:

Alexander Tharaud comments on his recent (rec. 5-7 January 2016) Rachmaninov recording: “I was still quite young when I first played this concerto,” explains Tharaud. “I adored it … Rachmaninov’s virtuosity really appeals to young pianists. Today, of course, I’m still enthralled by the concerto’s virtuosity, but now I’m more interested in its dark shadows: the sense of despair, of staring into the abyss. My interpretation of Rachmaninov has changed a lot over the years.”

I cannot attest to any prior recording of the ubiquitous 1900 c minor Concerto by Tharaud, but this performance proves exemplary, with perhaps the finest exposition of the opening Russian-bells sequence in F, crescendo, since the Kapell collaboration with William Steinberg. Lovely flute and clarinet work complements Tharaud at the opening of the second movement, moving suddenly into a brief scherzo episode plus cadenza before the soothing arpeggios of the main theme recur. The last movement, Allegro scherzando, begins in martial style. Whether we want to associate the generous tune with “Full Moon and Empty Arms” remains the listener’s choice. While I cannot confirm a voyage to the “abyss” as Tharaud claims, what has been impressive throughout has been Tharaud’s total integration – quite stunningly smooth transitions – of his plastic and virtuosic playing on the Steinway D with the warm sonority of Vedernikov’s Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, courtesy of sound engineer Philip Siney.

The “chamber music” portion of this disc comes from sessions taped 13-16 February 2016 at the Salle Colonne, Paris, with the sound engineer Cecile Lenoir. In 1892, Rachmaninov conceived of and dedicated his Five Pieces to Anton Arensky, among his major professors at the Conservatory. Already the “mortal coil” of the Dies Irae asserts itself in each of these pieces, evident in the half-step fall and then whole-tone-and-inversion formula that applies at every beginning. The universally recognized Prelude in c-sharp minor came first, and the Serenade in b-flat minor last, possibly as a token to Tchaikovsky, since Rachmaninov’s original impulse had been to publish four pieces at his Op. 3.

The first work, the languorous Elegie in E-flat Major, combines elements of Chopin and Scriabin. Tharaud realizes this piece with expansive intimacy. The monumental Prelude – which, along with the succeeding, nocturnal Melodie, Tchaikovsky praised – resounds with “the four notes of the great bells in the St. Sophia Cathedral of Novgorod. . .which I often heard when my grandmother took me to town on church festival days,” recalled Rachmaninov. We might speculate if Tharaud’s mighty performance will come to curse him as his “eternal encore.”  A friend of Rachmaninov, the tenor Mikhail Slonov, volunteered the title “Polichinelle” for the f-sharp minor fourth etude-like piece, which the tenor saw as a characterization from the commedia dell’arte, close to Rachmaninov and Schumann’s heart. The opening chords bear a faint resemblance to Mussorgsky’s “Gnomus” from his Pictures after Viktor Hartmann. The “Serenade” conveys a Spanish color and erotic nuance, wistful in the manner of Albeniz.

Rachmaninov with lyric soprano Antonina Nezhdanova – its dedicatee – first performed the wordless Vocalise in 1916. I came to know this version via Anna Moffo and Leopold Stokowski. Tharaud chose Sabine Devieilhe for her “ethereal” voice quality. Rachmaninov created several six-hand compositions in 1891 for the Skalon sisters, cousins of the Satins, to whom Rachmaninov was related. The Romance in A Major offers opening bars that will grace the same Concerto No. 2 in its second movement!  The cosmopolitan, glittery Valse in A Major takes its theme from a piece by the eldest Skalon sister, Natalia, a phenomenon we might liken to a budding relationship of Robert Schumann with one Clara Wieck.

—Gary Lemco

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