Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 2 & 3 - Sudbin, Oramo
Classical - Orchestral
Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos 2 & 3
Yevgeny Sudbin (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo (conductor)
Over the course of almost 10 years, Yevgeny Sudbin has been recording Sergei Rachmaninov’s works for piano and orchestra. The journey began in the U.S.A. in 2008 with the Fourth Piano Concerto, and what Classic FM Magazine described as ‘a glorious recording’ with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra under Grant Llewellyn. For the Paganini Variations and Piano Concerto No. 1, Sudbin continued to Asia and highly praised collaborations with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and conductor Lan Shui. Reviewers remarked on the soloist’s ‘transcendental virtuosity and kaleidoscopic keyboard colour’ (BBC Music Magazine) and enjoyed piano-playing with ‘depth of tone, subtlety and richness of texture, and scintillating dynamism allied to acute lyrical sensibility’ (Gramophone).
The grand finale of Sudbin’s Rachmaninov cycle combines the two best-loved concertos – No. 2 in C minor and No. 3 in D minor – but it also constitutes a home-coming of a kind, as it was recorded in London, Yevgeny Sudbin’s base since 1997. For his partners in these monumental and almost iconic concertos, Sudbin has chosen the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor Sakari Oramo.
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Producer: Marion Schwebel (Take5 Music Production)
Sound engineer: Andreas Ruge
Equipment: BIS’s recording teams use microphones from Neumann, DPA and Schoeps, audio electronics from RME, Lake People and DirectOut, MADI optical cabling technology, monitoring equipment from STAX and Sennheiser, and Sequoia and Pyramix digital audio workstations.
Post-production: Editing and mixing: Marion Schwebel
Executive producer: Robert Suff
Review by Adrian Quanjer - January 14, 2018
This disc completes BIS’ set of all four piano concerti with star soloist Yevgeny Sudbin. Numbers 2 and 3 are arguably the best loved and most played of all four, each with its own characteristics and demands. The only other complete set, issued as a boxed set, is the one with Stephen Hough Rachmaninov: 4 Piano Concertos, Paganini Rhapsody - Hough / Litton drawing mixed reactions here and elsewhere as far as sound is concerned. All the more reason to welcome this new one.
All ingredients are in place to invoke our highest expectation: A first rate Russian soloist, one of the best Finnish conductors, the fine orchestral body of the British Broadcasting Company and BIS’ recording facility. But beware, competition for both these concerti is fierce and opinions do not always concur.
The second used to be the more popular one for many years. In fact, it was for a long time the only one people knew. It took the likes of Byron Janis (Mercury, Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati) to make us aware of the explosive and dramatic beauty of the third. It was my encounter and love at first sight.
Many famous pianist have, over the years, moulded the concept for Rach 2 that now seems to be the universally accepted standard. To qualify for superiority one needs to dig deeper. Without denying any competence to any of the contenders for the rosette, it certainly does help if the recorded sound and resolution is better than most. This is Sudbin’s case. The juxtaposition I referred to above does wonders and lifts Sudbin a cut above many in the top segment and in any format. I do hope I may be excused from further niceties and other typical review speak to make clear that we have here a superb performance of the second which does not pale in the face of the rest.
However, in the third we will have to deal with some controversy and any judgement depends on how the listener wants to be served. As it ‘lies more naturally under the hands’ and sounds more spectacular than the second, Rachmaninov’s third is a top favourite for many of the world’s most famous piano contests. I for one, do not belong to those who like the third being treated as mere spectacle. It risks killing much of the beauty and musical impact, in particular with regard to the first movement marked ‘Allegro ma non tanto’ (but not too much), which all too often is played too fast for my taste.
To compare Sudbin’s reading of the first movement I selected three other recordings in my collection: Stephen Hough (Hyperion SACDA67501/2); Lang Lang (Telarc SACD-60582) and from the ranks of RBCD: Evgeny Kissin (RCA Victor Red Seal 09026 61548-2).
In the opening bars Sudbin’s speed is nigh ideal, played with much anticipated control, graciously underpinned by the warm sound of the BBC Symphony. But looking at the timings of the competition I noted that Sudbin is nonetheless the fastest of them all: First movement timings are 15:01; 17:42; 18:29 respectively, as against 14:40 for Sudbin. Of course, we must handle timings with care. Multiple changes in tempi and other, mostly subjective factors can make much difference as far as the real impact of overall timing is concerned. Listening test will best answer whether the Allegro is sufficiently ‘non tanto’.
Remarkably enough, a notorious piano acrobat like Lang Lang, ably holds back in the opening bars, developing his undeniable technical skills further on, but still within the limits of ‘non tanto’. Temirkanov’s influence? I believe so, although in 2002 Lang Lang had not yet reached - as recently somewhat disrespectfully qualified by someone - his ‘extravagant gestures and rock-star status’.
Moving to Evgeny Kissin: His ‘entrée’ is the slowest of all but at the same time the most lyrical. Quite exceptional for a young, eager and brilliant newcomer. He is, of course, greatly helped by a sumptuous Boston Symphony with Maestro Ozawa at the helm, holding everything coherently together in spite of the speed.
Stephen Hough is a completely different cup of tea. He hurries off right from the start, thrusting dazzlingly forward all the way, with some restraint in the middle of the movement. The recording is taken from a live performance and, generally speaking, audiences love dare devil performances. Especially if contrasted with a dramatic slow movement and a final whirlwind. Fit for any contest. And the Dallas Symphony has no difficulty responding in equal measure to all counts. Not my first choice, but surely exceptional for those who like it this way.
Virtuosi disposing of all the technical skills, are inclined to opt for speed. And so does Sudbin. After the prudent introduction he puts himself in higher gear. But in spite of a similar rush, I find Sudbin’s reading more refined and articulate than Hough’s, displaying a kind of cultured craftsmanship that doesn’t wash away the lyrical aspects. And yet, something is missing. Listening several times and comparing with others, I arrived at the conclusion that it is not so much Sudbin, but the interplay and orchestral support resulting in a less passionate performance than I had expected. In fact, Sudbin’s superiority is not entirely met with the same exciting compassion from the orchestra. A touch of thrilling fire is missing.
One might say that the BBC Symphony has not the flashy drama of the Dallas Symphony, the sumptuous sound of the Boston Symphony, nor the expressive vitality of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. But In the final analysis I would rather put it down to differences in appreciation by the conductor, as all three orchestras are of similar competence. This becomes clear in the slow movement, when all four pianists can proceed in a more or less comparable drama laden, lyrical fashion. This time the score speaks, as it were, for itself. In the final movement, however, the same differences as in the first resurface.
All things said, heard and done, Stephen Hough (complete set) and Lang Lang (the 3rd only) have their draw backs. The Hyperion recording is not optimal and the Telarc live recording in the Royal Albert Hall, however well played, does not include the second concerto and the same goes for my long time, lo-res favourite, Kissin.
Does that bring Sudbin c.s. to the top? Looking at the (many) available recordings of either concerto, there is hardly any carrying off unanimous approval. That’s often the case with core repertoire. We all have our firmly established opinions, making it difficult to find common ground and to agree on best performances.
I value this positively. Choice is wonderful. But so are economics. There aren’t many two plus three on-a-disc on the market. And while it may not be my one hundred per cent ideal performance, BIS’ offer is not to be neglected and may for now well be the best choice for your hard earned cash. The more so because of the excellent recording quality, which only few, and hardly none of the competition are able to match.
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