Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 4; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Piano Concerto No. 2; Piano Concerto No. 3; Piano Concerto No. 4; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
PERFORMER: Stephen Hough (piano); Dallas SO/Andrew Litton
If you think Stephen Hough launches into the opening bars of Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto twice as fast as most pianists, simply look at the score. Hough honours the composer’s written tempo indication, while virtually everyone else does not, including the composer himself. This prepares you for a brisk and rigorous performance, where Andrew Litton’s forthright conducting stresses the music’s symphonic orientation, and admirably anchors Hough’s frisky fingerwork. Fleetness and clarity rather than smouldering fury characterise both pianist and conductor’s approach to the Third Concerto, evoking Zoltán Kocsis’s like-minded, albeit more elegantly dispatched account (Philips). Some may feel that Hough impatiently ploughs through the Intermezzo’s chordal thickets, although the finale’s coda truly catches fire. Hough wisely opts for the first movement’s lighter cadenza, more musically rewarding than the portly ossia most pianists favour today. The underrated Fourth Concerto features the Dallas Symphony’s stellar brass and winds ideally aligned, plus Hough’s balletic projection of the finale’s dazzling runs. No less distinct are the First Concerto’s deliciously dovetailed rubatos in the first movement and the finale’s perfectly gauged rhythmic definition. But the slow movement’s lyric simplicity acquires greater depth and textural richness in Vladimir Ashkenazy’s hands, together with the Concertgebouw Orchestra’s lusher sonority. Happily, the Hough/Litton Paganini Rhapsody proves quite as incisive and nearly as vividly detailed as the Kapell/Reiner (RCA) and Wild/Horenstein (Chandos) traversals. Hough refuses to sentimentalise the famous 18th variation, underlining its expressive arcs through voicing and touch, rather than tempo fluctuation. Overall, these live concert recordings stand out in a field jam-packed with first-rate Rachmaninov concerto cycles. Jed Distler