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Piano Concerto No. 3 [recordings] by Sergei…

Piano Concerto No. 3 [recordings]

by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Sergei Rachmaninoff (composer)

Other authors: Indiana Symphony Orchestra, Franz Liszt (composer), Charles Webb (conductor)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30

[1] I. Allegro ma non tanto
[2] II. Intermezzo: Adagio
[3] III. Finale: Alla breve

Jorge Bolet, piano
London Symphony Orchestra
Ivan Fischer

Recorded: September 1982, Kingsway Hall, London.

ArkivMusic, CD-R on demand. [Decca, 1985.] TT: c. 44 min. Piano by C. Bechstein. Liner notes by Bryce Morrison.


It has always been fashionable to degrade this recording in comparison with Bolet’s incandescent live performance from 1969. To be sure, the later recording is slower, more reflective and more subdued. But these are poor reasons to degrade it. Make no mistake; the 1982 performance is in no way deficient, technically or musically; Bolet, though nearly 68 at the time, was not a decrepit old man pathetically trying to do what he no longer was able to. The difference between the recordings merely shows that masterpieces can withstand diverse interpretations – indeed, this is part of the definition of masterpiece – and that great artists change with the years, or from live concerts to studio recordings, without losing their strength. In the liner notes, most of which consists of his own words, Jorge Bolet provides a great deal of insight into his interpretation:

I heard Rachmaninov play his Third Concerto at least a dozen times and can never forget his grandeur, drama and lyrical intensity. I first learnt the Third Concerto when I was fourteen but I let the music mature for another eight years before my first public performance. Of course the mechanical and physical challenge is formidable, but for me the real problem is two-fold: to project the music’s teeming inner life, its deep-dyed Slavonic romanticism, and then to make it all cohere, add up to a total experience. If your audience feels that this> is episodic or that is redundant, if you let them forget the music’s line and continuity, you have failed in your central task.

This is extraordinarily perceptive. For my part, there is nothing “episodic” or “redundant” in Bolet’s 1982 recording of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto. That’s exactly what makes it special. It may be slower than the tempestuous 1969 live recording (this is partly due to the fact that the studio version is virtually uncut), but the more important fact is that it doesn’t sound slow. I don’t know how Bolet achieves this. All I know is that you can’t achieve it by trying. This kind of artistry is instinctive, or at least formed very early in life. The opening theme and the first-movement cadenza are actually faster than is customary nowadays, but that only goes to confirm Harold Schonberg’s gloomy observation that the modern vogue for slowness misrepresents the music. The rousing opening of the third movement is actually slower than usual (but not slower than the 1969 recording!), yet does it sound interminable? Not to me. On the whole, this is a subtle and sensitive, yet powerful, performance that leaves, as far as I am concerned, nothing to be desired. Further in the liner notes, Jorge explains why he made certain choices in regard to the text:

Of the two versions of the first-movement cadenza I greatly prefer the lighter, more quicksilver one. The shape and architecture of the alternative overreaches itself and the climax comes too soon. Incidentally, I make only one two-bar cut at the climax of the cadenza: the rhythm is already sufficiently emphatic without further rhetoric. Unlike Rachmaninov I play the alternative version of the Intermezzo’s Più vivo – it’s less ‘busy’ or fussy than the original – though the left-hand double notes are much more taxing. Then I play all of the Meno mossoin the finale. If you remove it you erase a beautiful passage and involve yourself in a clumsy transition. I don’t play the double note ossia ascent in the finale (just before Tempo I, Alla breve). It’s too ornate and impossible to articulate satisfactorily at such high speed. Again, the triplet as opposed to quadruplet octaves on the last page are far more powerful and incisive, more rhythmically authentic. As for tempi I follow Rachmaninov’s example in the opening Allegro, playing with greater rapidity than usual, but I take the finale quite a bit slower. I really like to hear all those notes in the theme and offer something other than the familiar vague approximation. Did you know, incidentally, that Rachmaninov confessed to Godowsky in a state of near despair that he often played far too fast? Like certain other modern virtuosi it was a real problem for him.

I completely subscribe to Alan Walker’s theory that comparison of performances is the lowest form of criticism, not to say a proof that a critical faculty is absent. A performance should be compared to one thing only and this is the score. Few can do that, not many more can understand it, and both parties usually have much better things to do than to write reviews. I enjoy comparing performances as a layman, but more often than not I find it harmful, easily degenerating into listening for specific details and missing all the music. I would much sooner take a performance as an end itself and see how I can benefit from it.

Taken on its own terms, Bolet’s 1982 recording of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto is superb. It is highly original and beautifully articulated without being in the least dragged or dull. When it’s over, I can indulge in futile comparisons as much as I like, but while I’m listening to it I remain totally convinced that this is the way to play this concerto. No performance can achieve more than that. No complaints about the sound or the conducting, either. The former is crystal clear and spacious, with sonorous Bechstein and plenty of orchestral detail to appreciate, while the latter is accomplished enough not to spoil the overall experience. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Nov 21, 2015 |
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30

[1] I. Allegro ma non tanto
[2] II. Intermezzo: Adagio
[3] III. Finale: Alla breve

Jorge Bolet, piano
Indiana University Symphony Orchestra
Charles Webb*

Franz Liszt (1811–1886)
Lieder Transcriptions

[4] Die Forelle (Schubert)
[5] Mädchens Wunsch (Chopin)
[6] Widmung (Schumann)
Opera Paraphrases
[7] Réminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor (Donizetti)
[8] Spinner-Lied (Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer)
[9] Rigoletto Paraphrase (Verdi)

Jorge Bolet, piano

Recorded: 30 June 1969, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA (Live, 1-3); 1969, Casino de l'aliança del Poble Nou, Barcelona, Spain (4-9).

Palexa, 1997. TT: 68 min. Piano: Baldwin (Rachmaninov). Liner notes by Jean-Pascal Hamelin (English+French).

*The booklet mentions neither the date nor the conductor; they are taken from the invaluable discography of Jorge Bolet compiled by Farhan Malik and Michael Glover. The booklet also gives a wrong year (1970) for the paraphrases.


The solo piano pieces on this disc are easily found elsewhere. They were released on CD by Ensayo in 2002. They are also included in the recent (2014) RCA/Sony box-set (10 CD) dedicated to Bolet’s complete recordings for these labels. Though originally made in Spain for a Spanish label, the Ensayo LPs were released in the US by RCA in the 1970s. What I have to say about Bolet’s playing in these paraphrases I have said elsewhere. It isn’t much. Consummate mastery like that needs no comment. Just play the CD and dissolve yourself into the music.

Pretty much the same is true of this legendary performance of the Third Concerto. It has acquired quite a reputation among fans of Bolet and Rachmaninoff. Jean-Pascal Hamelin rightly mentions Rachmaninoff’s own and Horowitz’s several recordings (including the unofficial live ones with Barbirolli and Koussevitzky) in the same league as Bolet in 1969. He has indeed the same transcendental virtuosity that scorns the monstrous technical difficulties and the same nearly infallible instinct for the most effective musical expression. By modern standards, he is rather on the fast side, but there never is anything rushed, unmusical or ugly. Bolet even makes perfect musical sense of those monumental chords that lead to the first-movement climax; far too many pianists simply bang them aimlessly, mindlessly, atrociously. He chooses, as did Horowitz and Rachmaninoff, the shorter cadenza and, again like his mythical predecessors (and perhaps even a bit better than them!), creates a whirlwind of sound and logic. The lyrical episodes, and there are plenty of them, are beautiful beyond words. That, of course, is the key phrase for the whole performance: beyond words.

Where’s the catch, you ask? Yes, there is one; there always is. The sound is poor. It is mono, and not a very good one either, and the piano has a most unpleasant metallic edge. The orchestra is surprisingly well captured, particularly in the more robust passages, but there are a good many rough moments. Never mind. It’s not much of a price to pay for artistry of this calibre (yet another similarity with Rachmaninoff and Horowitz).

Jean-Pascal Hamelin, in addition to indifferent biographical background, has some very interesting things to say about cuts. According to him, Jorge makes three in this recording: 2 bars from the cadenza in the first movement, 14 bars in the second movement (8:53), and 24 bars in the third movement (4:41). If these figures are correct, they compare rather nicely with other recordings. Again according to Monsieur Hamelin, Rachmaninoff’s mighty recording is 64 bars shorter, while Horowitz employed different cuts every time (74 bars in 1930, 34 in 1941, 29 in 1950, 36 in 1951, and only 2 in 1978).

I am in the minority that doesn’t like a bit less Bolet’s more meditative late recording of this mighty concerto (1982, Decca, Fischer), but that doesn’t change the fact that this 1969 performance is simply stupendous. Really, it is not often that one hears Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto flow with such spontaneous inevitability. How fortunate we are that it was recorded! Never mind the sound or the cuts. If Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto means anything to you at all, you must have this disc on your shelves. If you’re a Bolet fan, I assume you already do. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Nov 20, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (18 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sergei Rachmaninoffprimary authorall editionscalculated
Rachmaninoff, Sergeicomposermain authorall editionsconfirmed
Bolet, Jorgepianomain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fischer, Ivanconductormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Indiana Symphony Orchestrasecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Liszt, Franzcomposersecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Webb, Charlesconductorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
London Symphony Orchestrasecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Morrison, Bryceliner notessecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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