|1. Piano Concerto No. 1 In F Sharp Minor, Op.1: I Vivace|
|2. Piano Concerto No. 1 In F Sharp Minor, Op.1: II Andante|
|3. Piano Concerto No. 1 In F Sharp Minor, Op.1: III Allegro vivace|
|4. Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op.18: I Moderato|
|5. Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op.18: II Adagio sostenuto|
|6. Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op.18: III Allegro scherzando|
|1. Piano Concerto No.3 In D Minor, Op.30: I Allegro ma non tanto|
|2. Piano Concerto No.3 In D Minor, Op.30: II Intermezzo: Adagio|
|3. Piano Concerto No.3 In D Minor, Op.30: III Finale (Alla breve)|
|4. Piano Concerto No.4 In D Minor, Op.40: I Allegro vivace (Alla breve)|
|5. Piano Concerto No.4 In D Minor, Op.40: II Largo|
|6. Piano Concerto No.4 In D Minor, Op.40: III Allegro vivace|
There's some talking about the sound of the piano. Some say it's shrill or too soft; well, not to me. It's interesting anyway to see how the piano sound has evolved in Ashkenazy's career: in his debut recording of Rach. 2 and 3 he still used a pretty ordinary instrument. But here, being an established artist already, he has chosen a more distinguished instrument that has a sharp, somewhat steely sound. It's the same piano as he uses in his Chopin and Beethoven recordings from the 70's. I like the instrument as it gives a very masculine and heroic touch to the sound. It is far from shrill: rather a little grungy and sharp. The louder passages, like the cadenza in the first movement of the third, sound very mighty and passionate, and the somewhat introspective sound is very special here.
The interpretations are quite strict. Don't expect anything like Richter in the second concerto, who's freewheeling while his orchestra gives him only the necessary support. Ashkenazy and Previn follow the composer's demands quite closely, as it seems, and don't suddenly change tempi nor do they 'forget' anything. The magisterial scene in the second concerto after about 6.30, when the piano starts a sudden attack that leads to a big explosion, and is supported by a heavy bass, sounds much better here than in Richter's performance. Ashkenazy's sound is a little more rounded and more beautiful too. Regarding the very lyric nature of the first two parts, this works very well. But in the virtuoso third part (that I find a little less interesting myself) he also plays with great character and at a fine speed. There are places in which I prefer Richter, especially in some louder parts because he's a little better audible there. But overall Ashkenazy's interpretation is my favourite, because his accompanists are a little more trustworthy.
For the third concerto, there's even more competition, but in my opinion Ashkenazy leaves most competitors biting in the dust. His playing of the opening of the third is even more convincing than in his earlier account, and for me it comes close to the ideal sound for this music. His approach is extremely thoughtful and hearing it feels like it's part of some greater story. The few climaxes, like the one after 5.50, show Ashkenazy at his most engaged: he's not trying to impress, all he does is communicating the great music. At the next climax, after about nine minutes, he puts down a kind of heroic poetry that I have seldom heard. Very, very impressive. And that chilling tremolo in the strings just before the large cadenza... oh my! Then the cadenza comes, which is best heard with speakers at their maximum, followed by a great cooling down. I could repeat these comments for the second part, where there's again a brilliant combination of heroic and totally relaxed playing. And ditto for the third movement, although the virtuoso aspect is more present here. Whether it's the stormy first minute, with the very rapid fingerwork and large accents, or the total relaxation after some seven, eight minutes, Ashkenazy performs it with stunning poetry and a highly authoritative attitude. And finally there's a heroic, but very no-nonsense conclusion. Everyone may have his own opinion, but this is my favourite Rachmaninov 3 and I find it MUCH better than over-hyped performances like the tiresome 1951 Horowitz account or, even worse, the latter's terrible banging show from 1978. Argerich may be spectacular, but probably not as poetic and musical.
The other two concertos are also given stellar performances: both the first and the fourth are pretty wild rides, but then: I haven't heard too many other versions of them. In the first, with that Grieg-like monstrous opening, he combines poetry and ample virtuosity in the first movement (although his speed in the opening theme isn't half as fast as usual, but the speed increases quickly). And nothing but praise for his playing of the cadenza in this movement, that clearly precedes the one in the third. And I could say the same of the two other movements. The somewhat strange and not very linear fourth concerto gets a powerful and fast treatment too, and there's even some humour to be found here (not very usual for Rachmaninov). I'm less enthusiastic about the sound of the piano in this piece: it's a little dry compared to the other concertos. But still, the carnavalesque spirit of the music shines through beautifully, both because of Previn's almost rhetoric conducting and Ashkenazy's light-fast finger runs. Hear that last movement!
I think my point has been made clear: this is one Rachmaninov set you can't afford to skip, as it presents some of the best recordings of this great music ever made. It also shows Ashkenazy at his very best, and I shouldn't forget Previn's very delicate conducting either. So don't miss this twofer, or get Ashkenazy's complete Rachmaninov recordings all in one: an even better choice!