Except for the expert remastering of the composer's own recordings, Naxos has been repeatedly trying to get it right with the Rachmaninoff concertos. The Jeno Jando disc with the second concerto and the rhapsody was nicely played; but the orchestra wasn't quite as good as the pianist. Then Bernd Glemser had a go. Again, good performances, but rather glib, lacking something in the soul department.
Now, we can listen to Konstantin Scherbakov, accompanied by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra (the modern incarnation of the old USSR symphony), conducted by Dimitri Yablonsky. Mr. Scherbakov arrives at this point, having established very strong pianistic credentials by way of his stellar performances of the Beethoven Diabelli Variations, the Shostakovich Preludes, all set down for Naxos in regular 16-bit PCM red book stereo sound.
As a winner of the first-ever Rachmaninoff competition, you might suspect that Mr. Scherbakov would know a thing or two about how to present this music. He does, indeed. Right off, he commands the balances needed to make Rachmaninoff more than background or elevator music. Pacing is key,and not easily done in Rachmaninoff. Not to fast, not too slow; able to rise and fall with the larger phrasings of the music without devolving into the kind of taffy-pull that leaves the music in gooey strings, laying around all over the room table tops, limp.
Technically, though neither of these two concertos is particularly easy to play, Scherbakov solves or surmounts every difficulty. First off, he has the figurations in hand. Rachmaninoff is always requiring the pianist to play very busy patterns, while also making you work to distinguish the melody or rhythmic foreground from the rest of the pattern that serves as background, and sometimes even as motoric background and lyric counterpoint-commentary. This is not physically impossible, but lots of virtuosos are either working too hard to get it all done, or play it all like a whiz kid who doesn't care to know the musical foreground from background.
The orchestra keeps up with the pianist very well. The multichannel high resolution sound allows you to hear everything, without the glare or compression that subtly tints the reproduction in regular CD at 16 bits. Again, there are lots of momentary passages, at both slow and fast tempos,where Rachmaninoff writes in orchestra duets from somebody in the band who chimes in with whatever the piano is playing. These cannot be indulged, and must be tricky to get right within the larger flux of the passing moments. Often the soloist playing something along with the piano concerto star is a member of the woodwinds. It is rather nice to hear how well the orchestra acquits itself in these passages, without calling undue attention to the interplay in a way that interrupts the music.
If this release is any evidence, and I do believe it is, then Naxos has finally gotten it right in their search for team Rachmaninoff. One hopes this team will finish up a complete Rachmaninov concerto-rhapsody cycle? The fact that all this success is available in high resolution sound is great, too. Highly, highly recommended, even if you have other performances you like. Five stars, each, for Scherbakov, for the orchestra, and the conductor. I believe that makes fifteen stars, total.