Written in 1934 in Lucerne, Rachmaninov created these variations based on a theme from the last of Paganini’s 2 Caprices. The 24 variations can be grouped into 3 movements, creating the full Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
The best recording
Stephen Hough (piano)
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton (2004)
Stephen Hough’s Rachmaninov collection for Hyperion includes all four piano concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The two-disc set was lauded on its release, and 13 years later remains inspirational. The performance by Hough (right) of the Rhapsody is exceptional, as he balances bravura with passion, poetry and a hint of whimsy.
The variations are laced with insider jokes: the theme, which is given on the strings with selected notes picked out by the piano, doesn’t appear until after an introduction. Here, Hough is more reserved than some of the other pianists featured here. The restrained beginning quickly gains a fluency, and by variations three and four we understand the transformation that is under way.
As we gather pace towards the end of the first group of variations, the syncopated phrasing feels richly urbane. It’s an excitement that ripples through the poetic middle variations, eventually exploding in the final climatic glissandos.
Conductor Andrew Litton, meanwhile, draws rainbows of colour from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and the communication between soloist
and conductor is seamless – the duo obviously felt so too, as Hough went on to record the Liszt and Grieg concertos with Litton when the latter took up the baton at the Bergen Philharmonic. Hyperion’s production values are the icing on the multi-tiered cake.
Three other great recordings
Philippe Entremont (piano)
The Philadelphia Orchestra/ Eugene Ormandy (1958)
French pianist Philippe Entremont’s vintage recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra thrills for its intensity. His pianism is like crisp champagne, his virtuosity leavened
with precise ensemble playing. It helps that the ensemble in question has a long affinity with the work – the Philadelphia Orchestra had premiered the variations on disc in 1934 under Leopold Stokowski with Rachmaninov as the soloist, who reportedly considered the orchestra to be his favourite.
Entremont’sapproach is more energetic and less inhibited than most: this is effective in the final variations, perhaps less so in the middle parts. The recording, while exciting as a slice of musical history, suffers for its close miking of the piano. Originally released on LP in 1958, it was remastered and re-released in 2014.
Van Cliburn (piano)
The Philadelphia Orchestra/ Eugene Ormandy (1971)
The Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Eugene Ormandy cannot escape the limelight, this time appearing with the exalted Van Cliburn, one-time winner of the Tchaikovsky contest. His interpretation
is more expansive than Entremont’s, taking nearly 25 minutes to luxuriate at every poetic twist and turn (versus Entremont’s speedy
The American’s charismatic Andante cantabile (Variation 18) is one of the best you’ll hear – note the considered poise before the lyrical outpouring as we move into the inversion of the main motif.
Van Cliburn excels at capturing the Romantic elements of the work, such as the foreshadowing Variation 15. In places, perhaps, this version lacks the light-heartedness that Rachmaninov originally intended: the rhetorical flourishes could do with a sprinkle of pizzazz. It’s a small gripe.
Yuja Wang (piano)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Claudio Abbado (2011)
DG 477 9308
Yuja Wang’s mischievous style – particularly in the first group of variations – suits the Gershwin-esque elements, and contrasts with the Romanticism of Van Cliburn, the virtuosity of Vladimir Ashkanazy (with the LSO under André Previn) or the neatness of Nicolai Lugansky (with the CBSO under Sakari Oramo).
The live element adds an additional layer of excitement, and there is spirit, verve and a twinkle. This is one of Wang’s earliest recordings, and also one of her best.
And one to avoid…
Lang Lang/Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre
On paper, this is the sort of team that might have produced a winning disc, but in reality, their recording lacks the required delicacy and depth. The tempos are textbook Lang Lang: excessive rubato leaves the listener unsure of the focus.
On a positive note, this is a concert performance, and there is plenty of playfulness here. Unfortunately, this often develops into an improvisatory style, which moves dangerously close to showmanship.