RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 – Yuja Wang, piano/Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Claudio Abbado – DGG B0015338-02, 56:20 [Distr. By Universal] ****:
Conductor Claudio Abbado specifically requested Chinese piano virtuoso Yuja Wang (b. 1987) for her first recording with orchestra, choosing Rachmaninov’s two most popular–and over-recorded–works. The result proves less tiresome than originally meets the eye, since the artists’ unsentimental but plastic approach infuses a generously sympathetic hue to the project.
That Rachmaninov could extract the Dies Irae of the Requiem Mass from Paganini’s A Minor Caprice either demonstrates genius or Gothic obsession, but the appearance of the sequence in the 1934 Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini comes quite early and conjoins a startling set of variations with something like Lisztian demonism, inspired by that composer’s Totentanz. The expansive collaboration between Yang and Abbado permits a casual endearing look at each of the twenty-four variations, here played for their individual color and transformation of the original into something like a three-movement program replete with a love-scene. The balletic contours of the theme emerge with violin solo against the piano, clarinet, and French horn as they weave a mysteriously erotic series of modulations moving to the grand Variation 18–an inversion of the original caprice–that has enshrined the work for posterity. Listen to Abbado’s tremolos from the Mahler ensemble strings. Wang and Abbado take the Scherzando finale at a delicious pace, exuberantly enjoying the playful and audacious figures as they move busily through a series of roller-coaster energies that culminate in yet another burst of Poe’s iron bells of death, but here mitigated by the knowledge of passions well-spent.
The ubiquitous C Minor Concerto manages to avoid hyper-emotional clichés without sacrificing its innately lush melancholy. The sober but passionate deliberation with which the principals execute the piece reminds me of the Entremont/Bernstein collaboration of some fifty years ago, another attempt to quell already dramatic souls with a semblance of classical restraint. When the tender episodes emerge, they do so with brightly lit poetry, emphasizing Rachmaninov’s careful application of wind and brass colors. The big climaxes proceed with dignity rather than bathos, and Wang’s impeccable technique and tonal beauty certainly aid in pouring this old wine into a new bottle. The Adagio sostenuto plays as a refined love song that takes its cue from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Its occasional tumultuous outbursts might link emotionally to the Chopin F Minor Concerto’s second movement, both works long familiar to Rachmaninov. The flashy finale may respond to a full moon but suffers no “empty arms,” since Wang has her taxing share of notes to handle, but the spins and gyrations become quite beguiling, while Abbado injects his own potent impetus into the mix. A disarming lovely set of Rachmaninov works, beautifully played and gorgeously recorded courtesy of engineer Stephan Flock.
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