Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2; Variations on a Theme of Corelli; Prelude, Op. 32/12; Études-tableaux, Opp. 33/1, 2 & 9

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninoff
LABELS: Teldec
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 2; Variations on a Theme of Corelli; Prelude, Op. 32/12; Études-tableaux, Opp. 33/1, 2 & 9
PERFORMER: Hélène Grimaud (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy
CATALOGUE NO: 8573-84376-2
The latest recording of Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto, from Hélène Grimaud and Vladimir Ashkenazy, is right up there with the best in a highly competitive field. What characterises Grimaud’s account is the nervous energy channelled into highly expressive rubato: this is playing that constantly grabs you by the lapel and looks you searchingly in the eye. In the fugal passage of the finale that energy is sculpted into sharply profiled quavers, but impetuosity is the keynote throughout. There is a lovely sense of fantasy too in the rippling triplets of the Adagio: a feeling even here that emotion can barely be contained.

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I was much taken with the recording of the Second Concerto from Noriko Ogawa and Owain Arwel Hughes that came out on BIS in 1997, and returning to it now I find many similar qualities in the new version – poetic sensibility, formidable technique and emotional engagement among them. Grimaud is a touch more insistent – an impression enhanced by the more forward recording of the piano in the Teldec version – Ogawa slightly more relaxed, perhaps more inward.

If one takes the classic Richter/Wislocki recording made in Warsaw in 1959 – available in the DG Originals series (447 420-2) – as the paradigmatic representative of the Slavonic approach, it is by no means certain that even such legendary billing can hold its own against the newcomers. The erratic timekeeping of Wislocki’s accompaniment, Richter’s heavier touch and the inferior tone of his instrument (which is either out of tune or poorly recorded) are all compromising features, while Richter’s curiously muted D flat restatement of the finale’s big tune is eclipsed by both Grimaud and Ogawa.

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The choice between the two latter may in the end come down to the coupling. Ogawa/Hughes offer an equally insightful Third Concerto; Grimaud gives wonderfully expressive performances of several solo pieces, including the Corelli Variations.