Friday, November 13, 2020

Comparing recorded versions of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.2

By Tony Magee

WITH the recent release of Daniil Trifonov’s recording of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, I find myself reflecting on the multitude of recordings I have listened to over many years and have in my music library. I love to compare and contrast different recorded versions of the same work. 

In the case of this concerto, I’m comparing the pianists, orchestras and conductor’s take on tempi, phrasing, tone production, the quality of the recording itself and a multitude of other relevant aspects.

For many, the hallmark recording of this concerto is that by Sviatoslav Richter with the Warsaw Philharmonic. We will return to that later.

BUT let’s start with the first complete recorded version. Rachmaninoff himself at the piano, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Recorded in 1929 for RCA, the sound quality is primitive, mono, full of distortion and background noise, but one can still hear through all the chaos, that Rachmaninoff and the orchestra were in full flight. The master had defined what he considered to be what he wrote down on paper, from his head, at the time. There is an earlier acoustic version with the same team from 1924, but the first movement was never released. The 2nd and 3rd movements were released on HMV Victrola.

It’s worth noting that Rachmaninoff premiered the second and third movements live in Moscow in 1900. It was a kind of test run. In 1901 he completed the first movement and performed the entire concerto with himself again as soloist with the Moscow Philharmonic.

We know from historical documents, letters and reviews, that pianist / composers through all eras, particularly Sebastian Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Saint-Saens - and we can add Rachmaninoff to that list - never played the same piece in the same way twice. Classical music improvisation was the norm and expected, and if you couldn’t do it, you were considered second rate, or worse.

As a consequence, over time, many pianists, conductors and orchestras have had their own say and interpreted the concerto in different ways.

DURING his short life of just 31 years, young American pianist William Kapell recorded the concerto twice. Both versions are marvellous: full of drama, colour and imaginative phrasing. Firstly, in 1950 with, what was called at the time, the curiously titled “Robin Hood Dell Orchestra of Philadelphia” conducted by William Sternberg and again in 1951 with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein. 

The Robin Hood Dell Orchestra was essentially the main Philadelphia Orchestra, but when some of the principle players were not available, they would hire “extras” - still of a very high standard - and changed the name, also dropping the ticket prices dramatically. Not so much stealing from the rich, but certainly giving to the poor.

Tragically, after his final performance on an Australian tour in 1953, encompassing 19 concerts, which included the Albert Hall in Canberra, the Douglas DC6 on which Kapell was travelling home to the US crashed on approach to San Francisco airport, killing all passengers and crew. Also on board was the brilliant French violinist Ginette Nevue.

Kapell’s interpretations are sometimes unconventional. Tempo, phrasing and dynamics seem sometimes at odds with what we expect the composer would have wanted, and indeed played on his own recording, but here we are dealing with a young man, aged in his late twenties at the time, who clearly wanted to make a statement, dividing the critics, (which he did) and “stand out”. As is often said, “There is no such thing as bad publicity". 

Dashing good looks didn’t go astray either and therefore Kapell, with his sometimes unorthodox  interpretation, attracted a new, admiring young audience of classical music devotes, not unlike Glen Gould would do 10 years later. 

Like everything in the hippie movement and before and after, some just went along for the ride, but for many, Kapell, had he lived, was going to be one of the great masters.

ONE of the finest recordings of this concerto for me, is that by the American pianist Byron Janis, with the Minnesota orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati, recorded in 1960.

The stereo quality is magnificent and the orchestral dynamics are breathtaking, as is the pianism. I keep switching between which I love the best - Richter or Janis. Depending on my mood and activities and who I’m with, either will do as the finest ever recorded version. If you’re into massive Russian weight technique, from the shoulders, with a huge sound without any hint of bashing, then Richter is the one.

NOW let’s move onto someone else who delivers an astonishing performance and created another of the great versions of this concerto. The Australian pianist, Eileen Joyce. Furthermore, she did it in two different ways, very cleverly.

Recorded in July 1946 in Kingsway Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, the full concerto, unabridged, is presented with style and panache by both pianist and orchestra. However Ms Joyce uses restraint sometimes, in contrast to the male performers who would just go for the “big sound” all the time. Her’s is a performance of style and grace, making sure every single note counts. Nothing is glossed over at the expense of bravado.

Eileen Joyce never made any attempt to hide here humble beginnings. Her parents were poor and when she was born in 1912, they were struggling and nomadic, looking for work in Tasmania.

Later, through the influence of a local priest in Kalgoorlie, who spotted the child’s talent, plus the later international influences and recognition of her outstanding abilities by Percy Grainger, William Backhaus, Albert Coats and Henry Wood, she was invited to make her concert debut at the London Proms in 1930 at Queen’s Hall. From there, success was ensured, resulting in a long and outstanding career.

One year earlier however, in 1945, Ms Joyce, at the invitation of Noël Coward, was invited to play selections from the concerto as the soundtrack for his film “Brief Encounter” (based on his play “Still Life”), starring Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. 

These selections form the basis for the entire movie soundtrack. There is no additional score involved. For this, they both decided to use the Sinfonia of London, conducted by Muir Mathieson, a popular choice for British films of that period.

It was a combination of the film plot itself, the superb acting skills of the cast and Rachmaninoff’s musical score, as played by Eileen Joyce, that made the film a huge box office success. It is still one of the most treasured cinematic masterpieces of the 20th Century.

ONE of the more disappointing performances of this concerto is that by the pianist Alexander Brailowsky, with the San Francisco Orchestra conducted by Enrique Jordan, released on RCA in 1958. Note firstly, that they teamed him up with a “second top five” orchestra and a no-name conductor. Brailowsky relied very much on his exotic sounding European surname, rather than true pianistic artistry. Russian born, he became a French citizen. He’s not bad, but RCA and CBS both seemed a bit desperate at the time to sign up musicians. The big majors - DGG, Philips, EMI and Decca had already signed all the great ones. 

BENNO Moiseiwitsch was a grand master of Chopin. His interpretations are hard to beat. His performance of the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2 is with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Hugo Rignold.

There is much to recommend along the way, but the the entire project is destroyed by the mixing balance between orchestra and piano. This Abbey Road Studios recording from 1956 has the piano mixed so softly, it’s almost like an afterthought, whilst the orchestra blasts your ears off. Why? The producers should all be shot. The pianistic playing itself is sublime and full of heart-felt rippling imaginative phasing and best of all - one of the best tone productions you will hear from any pianist. That was his greatest strength in everything he played.

My father Stuart and his friend David saw him live at Sydney Town Hall, also in 1956 and still recall this concert with great fondness. 

Conductor Sir Eugene Goosens however, with the Sydney Symphony already seated on stage, was not pleased. 

Moiseiwitsch loved having a flutter on the horses and had spent the entire day at Randwick. Noting the time, he grabbed a taxi at the last minute and arrived at Town Hall ten minutes before the curtain was to go up, getting changed into his tails and white tie in the cab on the way. 

Of course, the audience knew none of this (at the time), but backstage, there was panic, as it seemed that Benno was not going to show up. But he did, played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concert No. 1 and brought the house down.

The Press got holt hold of it though and in between glowing reviews, was the constant mention, no doubt reported by Goosens, of what had almost turned out to be a disaster.

THE GREAT Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter is considered one of the greatest of all time. For some, he is the greatest of all time. Certainly, his version of this concerto, released in 1959 for Deutsche Grammophon, is often considered the finest ever recording and performance. 

One of the skills in making this concerto a success, is how the pianist builds the opening chords. They have to start from the most delicate pianissimo, gradually building to triple forte. Many pianists peak to soon, leaving no-where, dynamically, to go. Richter does this part the best of anyone I’ve heard and then what follows equals that skill. 

The other thing that sets this recording aside from all others is the choice of tempo in the first movement. At first it almost seems to drag - it’s very slow, but once you give it a chance - just say 30 seconds or so - one hears the genius from both pianist, conductor and orchestra as to why. 

There has to be room to let the concerto breath and settle into a mood, an anticipation and a grandiose expectation of what might follow. 

And what follows is breathtaking. 

The Warsaw Philharmonic under the directorship of Stanislaw Wistowski, follows Richter’s every nuance and phasing. It is somewhat of an accompaniment, rather then a fully fledged work, where everything is mutually worked out together by all parties, but that is part of the greatness of the conductor and the orchestra. Richter leads the way and defines the tempos and phrasing. The conductor and orchestra follow.

It reminds me somewhat of a cabaret performance with a first rate singer - let me just mention Gery Scott here for a moment, or Toni Lamond, where the pianist who is accompanying, has to follow the phrasing and the dynamics of the singer, for it to be a really great performance.

The orchestra has its moments thought, particularly at cadence points and at the end of each movement, where some of the orchestral “thumps”, if I can use that word, are completely at the discretion of the conductor and orchestra.

DAME Moura Lympany (1916 - 2005), one of the great British concert pianists, recorded the concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Nicolai Malko in the mid 1950’s. 

What sets her performance apart from most other pianists is her ability to use rubato to an extent that borders on excess, but just holds short of being too florid or overly romantic. In addition, her dynamic shadings are of a proportion that reaches above most other pianists. 

Lympany, like Richter, achieves the building dynamic momentum of the opening piano chords but doesn’t build to a full triple forte at that point, She saves that for later in the first and also third movements. 

One feels that is deliberate and a brilliant achievement on her part to make other aspects of the concerto a highlight.

AMERICAN pianist Van Cliburn, with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony was one of the most highly anticipated and highest grossing classical records of all time. Released by RCA on their “Living Stereo” sub-label (their highest quality pressings) in 1962, it rates also as one of the most supreme versions.

Van Cliburn (centre) with Sviatoslav Ricter,
Moscow 1958.
In this, Cliburn, unlike anyone else, starts off the opening chords at mid-forte and then manages to build from there to a thunderous climax before the orchestral entry.

In addition, I believe it to be the recording where the piano comes through with the greatest clarity. On a good audio system, it sounds like Cliburn is seated in the room with you. An astonishing technical and pianistic achievement of any era of technology. 

Strangely, the woodwind and brass sections of the Chicago Symphony are just slightly out of tune at times, which for an orchestra of that calibre, being grouped within the American “Big Five”, the others being New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Cleveland, seems unbelievable. I can only think of one reason. Reiner’s hearing must have been on the way out.

All that aside, I would highly recommend owning a copy of this recording, whether it be on original issue LP or a CD transfer. Van Cliburn’s playing is stunning.

And now, we leave the past behind and look at a modern recording.

BRITISH born pianist Stephen Hough, who became an Australian citizen in 2005 and holds dual nationality, recorded the concerto in that same year, with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Litton and released on the boutique but exquisite Hyperion label.

Hough achieves the opening crescendos brilliantly, but at a cracking pace, nothing like which I’ve heard before. The tempos are almost vivace at times and then he and the orchestra relax back into a romantic mood of beauty. Hough has an old-school bell-like clarity style of tone production, similar to Shura Cherkassky and Benno Moiseiwitsch, but with just a little bit of extra sparkle to bring us all into the 21st century with aplomb, almost setting a new standard.

Timing and precision between the piano and orchestra are impeccable. 

The entire performance is of the fastest tempos I’ve heard, but it works, particularly because Hough uses the sustain pedal on the piano very economically. It’s there, but only when absolutely needed. Another example of setting a new standard in interpreting this great work.

His technique is flawless, sometimes at the expense of clarity of every note. If you compare this recording to Richter or Lympany, you’ll hear the massive differences in attention to detail, something which at times I feel Hough lacks.

Is this a case of the Tortoise and the Hare? Well, not quite, but I use the old adage simply to highlight the endless possibilities in interpreting a serious substantial composition.

AND FINALLY, the most recent release of this concerto - that by pianist Daniil Trifonov with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin for DGG, released in 2018.

Trifonov captures the crescendo opening well, with a brisk tempo, almost too rushed.

His pianistic sound however is glassy and sometimes metallic. He is not a pianist of beautiful tone production. Tempos range from rubato to very strict metronomic timing - a combination no doubt from the combined agreements, or possibly disagreements, by both pianist and conductor.

The latter is evident throughout the performance where sometimes, the piano seems at odds with the orchestra.

His phrasing is boring. Nothing really excites or moves the listener in any way. It’s more an exercise in technique and pianistic skill rather than a performance from the heart.

The third movement tempos are rushed, not allowing any of the beauty of the melody or emotion of the piece to develop. It really seems like someone was watching a clock motioning everyone to speed up, get it over with so we can all get out of here.

Balance between orchestra and piano is excellent.

IN THIS  particular article, I have analysed just eleven different versions of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. There are hundreds. What I would welcome is reader’s comments and their own thoughts about their favourite versions, or maybe ones they don’t like.

AND just a little secret I’ll share with you: it’s not my favourite piano concerto. It’s my second favourite. My very favourite piano concerto (by a different composer) is… well, that’s for another time.