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

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini; Piano Concerto No. 2
PERFORMER: Yuja Wang (piano); Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Claudio Abbado
CATALOGUE NO: DG 477 9308

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It takes something fairly special to get me enthusiastic about Rach 2: as a child, I heard our one recording of it so often in the home (it was a favourite of my father’s) I couldn’t bear to listen to the piece for years afterwards. But this new version from the remarkable Yuja Wang certainly seized my attention at once.
 
Recorded at the Teatro Comunale in Ferrara, DG claims this as her first concerto recording (in fact there’s a Euroarts DVD of her doing one of the Mendelssohn concertos), and it’s a fine successor to her previous much-acclaimed solo discs. She makes us hear this hoariest of Romantic war-horses afresh, as if with cleaned ears: the work emerges as almost classical, Mozartian even, in poise and architecture. There isn’t an iota of indulgence or gratuitous emotion, yet neither is there any lack of force or genuine passion wherever required.
 
Wang is aided by Abbado’s masterly direction of the orchestra, and a crystal-clear recording which allows us to hear much usually-masked woodwind detail, and the detailed inner voices within Rachmaninov’s keyboard writing. The storm of audience applause is well-merited.
 
The Paganini Rhapsody (no sign of an audience here) is no less satisfying, both mesmerising and superbly controlled, with loving attention to detail. The rapt, minutely focused intensity that Wang and Abbado bring to the minuet Variation 12, say, or the Allegretto 16th, are perfect examples of how this music should be dealt with: nothing is mere routine virtuosity, and every note has its role to play in building up the complex emotional totality of the piece.
 
There’s a legion of excellent competitors (Richter, Katchen, Ashkenazy, Hough, and supremely the composer himself, for starters), but this new issue is quite special. Calum MacDonald