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Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 /…

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2…

by Sergey Rachmaninov, Sergei Rachmaninoff

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Peter Iljitsch Tschaikowsky (1840–1893)
Klavierkonzert Nr. 1 b-moll op. 23

[1] I. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – Allegro con spirito
[2] II. Andantino semplice – Prestissimo – Tempo I
[3] III. Allegro con fuoco

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)
Klavierkonzert Nr. 2 c moll op. 18*

[4] I. Moderato
[5] II. Adagio sostenuto
[6] III. Allegro scherzando

Alexis Weissenberg, piano
Orchestre de Paris
*Berliner Philharmoniker
Herbert von Karajan

Recorded: II.1970, Salle Wagram, Paris; *IX.1972, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem.

EMI, 2004. TT 78.08. Digital remastering, 2004.


One of the least known and least successful parts of Karajan’s career was his serving as an “adviser” to the then newly formed Orchestre de Paris between 1968 and 1971. It was a tricky arrangement that could not possibly have worked. Since Karajan had quite enough on his hands in Berlin and Salzburg, even the ten weeks he was obliged to spend in Paris proved too much and in 1971 he was politely asked to leave – which he did graciously. He had, however, already made some spectacular recordings with the Parisians, mostly of French music of course. These include the Symphonie Fantastique on video, Franck’s Symphony in D minor, a marvellous Ravel album and this stupendous rendition of Tchaikovsky’s evergreen concerto with Weissenberg. Both conductor and soloist take their time to do some sightseeing, yet the performance is almost painfully intense. To make things just perfect, the sound is sumptuous; only a few cases of slight imbalance between piano and orchestra are questionable, but it’s no big deal.

Alexis Weissenberg played a great deal of Rachmaninoff. The Third Concerto, the complete preludes and the two sonatas are prominent in his discography. Somewhat amazingly, the Second Concerto is Karajan’s one and only foray into Rachmaninoff’s music. Not only did he never record warhorses like the Second Symphony or The Isle of the Dead, but it’s not known that he ever conducted them at all. We can be pretty sure this is a loss to posterity. Weissenberg does a fine job at the keyboard, but it’s Karajan who makes this recording one for the ages. From the brooding entry in the beginning to the glorious orchestral explosion in the finale, there is not a single moment that leaves anything to be desired. The Second Concerto is notoriously lyrical and as you might expect Karajan excels in the meltingly beautiful episodes (e.g. the ethereal ending of the second movement), but he is just as unforgettable in the climax of the first movement and much of the third where the score calls for high drama. The sound is as perfect as they come, if not quite as full as the one on the original LP.

Both recordings represent pinnacles of Karajan’s discography. He recorded Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto with Richter (1962), Berman (1975) and Kissin (1988, live, video), but none of these luminaries is any better than Weissenberg. Nor is Karajan himself, for that matter; with Richter and Berman he is almost perfunctory, while the late concert with Kissin, for all its autumnal charm, lacks the grand vision of the 1970 account. The only true competition is the rare video production with Weissenberg from 1967, sonically well captured in the Philharmonie and compellingly directed by the idiosyncratic Swede Åke Falk. Likewise, the 1973 live performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto with Karajan and Weissenberg is the only one that can hold a candle to their studio account from the previous year. This is ingeniously directed by Karajan himself and easily available on the Karajan in Concert DVD, but unfortunately the sound is thin and brittle almost beyond the point of endurance.

Handsomely presented and offered at a budget price, this EMI edition is a no-brainer for every classical music lover. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | May 21, 2016 |
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

[1] I. Moderato (12.07)
[2] II. Adagio sostenuto (12.06)
[3] III. Allegro scherzando (12.59)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23

[4] I. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso (22.33)
[5] II. Andantino semplice (8.06)
[6] III. Allegro con fuoco (7.21)

Jorge Bolet, piano
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
Charles Dutoit

Recorded: May 1987, St Eustache, Montreal.

Decca, 1987. TT: 75.20. Liner notes by Bryce Morrison. Portraits of the composers by David Newton.


I should start by admitting that I am a confirmed Boletoman. If you are one of those “objective” classical music aficionados who take themselves, and especially their opinions, way too seriously, you might just as well not read further. For my part, art is entirely subjective – as it should be, for otherwise it would be science – and music in particular is by far the most subjective of all arts. Reviews are written and read for fun, not in search of the ultimate truth.

That settled, let’s listen to some music. Timings, in this case, don’t lie. Even by the misguided modern cult of slowness, these are slow recordings. Both Bolet and Dutoit take their time to shape every phrase with loving care. As far as Dutoit is concerned, the result, especially in Rachmaninoff, is rather tepid and lacklustre; but you can’t blame the fellow for not being Karajan (with whom similar tempi work wonders). As far as Bolet is concerned, the result is a complete revelation. It takes genius to invest those warhorses with fresh insight. Jorge has it. He plays with great rhythmic and dynamic freedom which is both original and expressive. Just about every bar contains something I have never noticed on other recordings. He is peerless in the lyrical passages, and indeed it is fairly astonishing to realise how much of these concertos is meltingly lyrical in nature; far too many recordings miss this point. When he has to, Bolet’s fingers can summon tremendous sonority that puts to shame the young guns, but he doesn’t need that in order to infuse the music with elemental intensity and drama. Bolet’s incredible sense for proportion keeps the whole coherent and smoothly flowing. Nothing is exaggerated. Everything fits perfectly.

Fortunately for posterity, both the piano and the orchestra, including the vital balance between them, are very well captured by Decca. The sound is sumptuous and clear. The soupy orchestral climaxes are courtesy of Dutoit, not Decca. The liner notes by Bryce Morrison are typically insightful and succinct. He perceptively reminds us that both concertos, so hackneyed today, were not without some startling for their time innovations. For instance, he marvels at Tchaikovsky’s confidence “to jettison his magisterial opening and commence the concerto proper at bar 110”; even more remarkable is Rachmaninoff’s “majestic reminder in the Adagio’s closing pages of the Concerto’s opening, its menacing tread now changed into music of a glowing ardour and nobility.” In view of all this, Mr Morrison is convinced that (Nikolay) Rubinstein’s “notorious response [is] comprehensible if unforgivable”, and Stravinsky’s “sniping estimate of Rachmaninov as ‘six foot two of Russian gloom’ [is] more amusing than accurate.” As a special bonus, the booklet also contains two charmingly stylised drawings of the composers by David Newton.

Tchaikovsky’s First and Rachmaninoff’s Second are the most popular Romantic concertos for at least two very good reasons. On the one hand, they are full of gorgeous tunes that move even people normally unresponsive to classical music. I have seen it happen and it’s quite marvellous. People demur with something like “Oh, no, don’t play that stuff for me!”, but five minutes later you see them listening to “that stuff” with something very much like rapture. On the other hand, the more subtle reason is that these concertos offer a nearly infinite scope for interpretation. It’s almost impossible to ruin them. They are indestructible. They have survived everything from the most atrocious banging to the most confoundedly genteel approach. Jorge Bolet, needless to say, is neither a banger nor a sissy. If you don’t mind slow tempi (e.g. Karajan’s recordings with Weissenberg and especially Kissin), do give this disc a try. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Nov 21, 2015 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sergey Rachmaninovprimary authorall editionscalculated
Rachmaninoff, Sergeimain authorall editionsconfirmed
Berliner Philharmonikermain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bolet, Jorgepianomain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dutoit, Charlesconductormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Orchestre de Parismain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weissenberg, Alexispianomain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Morrison, Bryceliner notessecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Orchestre symphonique de Montréalsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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