Rachmaninov – Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini & Piano Concerto 3

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Mariinsky
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 3; Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini
PERFORMER: Denis Matsuev (piano); Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
CATALOGUE NO: MAR 0505 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Rachmaninov’s once intimidating Third Concerto is now performed quite often – with, far too often, inadequate results. Here, for once, is the level of artistry that the work needs. Denis Matsuev’s phenomenal deftness is such that he can launch into the finale at an eyebrow-raising speed which he then has no trouble sustaining. And for all his seemingly endless reserves of technical power, he never makes an ugly sound.

His way with the first movement’s second-subject melody has the kind of supple, moment-to-moment loveliness that it asks for, and so often doesn’t get; and the quality of strange remoteness and space behind all that flickering passagework is uncannily captured.

Matsuev chooses the heavier second version of the first movement’s cadenza, rather than the more fleet-footed first. (He also makes the similarly Rachmaninov-sanctioned, but unnecessary, cut in the finale.)

Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky orchestra, too, contribute here on a level so far beyond routine that you would think none of them had performed the work before: phrase after phrase is given its full value, and the Mariinsky strings have the second movement’s introduction sounding as haunting as it should.

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The Paganini Rhapsody is another memorable experience, with Matsuev and Gergiev darting unerringly between the music’s extremes of fantastical virtuosity and tight-reined lyricism. The recording, though always clear and comfortable, rather lacks the sense of space that the Third Concerto’s idiom and dimensions require, but that doesn’t detract from this pair of exceptional performances. Malcolm Hayes