RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 3 in d; Symphonic Dances – Garrick Ohlsson, p./ Atlanta Sym. Orch./ Robert Spano – ASO Media

RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 3 in d, Op. 30; Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 – Garrick Ohlsson, piano/ Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/ Robert Spano – ASO Media CD-1003, 79:09 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

It was a number of years ago that I saw an ASO concert with Garrick Ohlsson and Jahja Ling collaborating in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It was truly a magnificent musical experience, as this country’s orchestras have known few interpretative geniuses greater than Ling, and Ohlsson’s towering physical strength and massive conception of the concerto combined to make a performance for the ages. Ohlsson has had a very close relationship with the ASO over the years, and I always hoped that he would set down his Rach Three at some point.

Well, here it is. The ASO fell victim to the neutering of once-great Telarc recordings like so many of the other ensembles under their umbrella at one time, and finally decided, like so many other orchestras in the world, to embark on their own label, ASO Media. My only regret—and future hope—is that the label will revert back to the agenda that made their Telarc issues so gratifying, and so important, not to mention Grammy-winning as no other orchestra has yet achieved: the embracing of hi-res surround sound. [Like most of the other independent orchestra disc labels…Ed.]  Time will tell.

In the meanwhile, under the supervision of Robert Woods, the former founder of Telarc in 1977, this release is presented as a fruit of the Woods/ASO partnership, and recorded in 2009 just after Woods was a victim of the layoffs at Telarc after its buyout by Concord Music Group. The concerto was worth the wait; Rachmaninov’s longest, premiered in the U.S. and given a memorable performance shortly after by the composer, Gustav Mahler and the NY Phil, actually enticed him to come to the United States at a time when he had some reservations about the trip. But the work was very well received even though it was admitted at the time by most critics to be a piece almost grafted to the composer’s hands, so difficult were the technical aspects of the score. For Ohlsson, these seem like child’s play; he is so at ease with the work that his full concentration goes into delving into the richness and almost brush-thick intricacies of one of the most thoroughly high-choleric scores ever written. There have been other great recordings of course. Horowitz and Ormandy have been lionized for decades even though RCA’s sound is tinny. And the score was always a favorite of Van Cliburn. But Ohlsson holds his own with the best of them and this is an exceptional reading of a beloved work.

The Symphonic Dances is the composer’s last score—he died two years later—and was written about 30 years after the Concerto. We are used to it today, but there was a time when its secrets were not so easily apprehended. Certainly the work’s first appearance was not enthusiastically received, and it’s not hard to understand the differences in style between it and the Third Concerto. Heart-on-sleeve romanticism was the hallmark of Rachmaninov in the early 1900s, but by the time 1940 rolled around the composer had advanced quite largely in his skills as orchestrator and especially in his harmonic language, even though his penchant for richly-drawn melody remained.

My benchmark for this piece has been Vladimir Ashkenazy’s outing with the Concertgebouw on London Records, a recording that still stands as one of the finest aural transmissions the piece has enjoyed, and one cannot discount Eugene Ormandy’s recording as it was dedicated to him. Spano’s account is by no means easily dismissed, though he does not seem to bring the same flash and enthusiasm to the piece as he does to so many others. It’s not a bad recording by any means, but compared to the stunning and detailed accompaniment he brings to the Concerto, it is somewhat of a letdown. The ASO is on top of it however, and the same clarity and forceful sound resounds throughout this fine disc. Get this for the Concerto—the Symphonic Dances are an acceptable bonus.

—Steven Ritter

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