Most helpful critical review
"The Ultimate Rachmaninoff 3rd"? Far from it
on August 13, 2001
This is one overhyped CD. Yes, Lady Martha plays like all the blazes, yes, you can almost hear the sonic booms behind her, and yes, she undoubtedly had about eighty espressos before she went out on stage. Yes, the orchestra struggles to keep up with her. Yes, it's electrifying. But the concerto isn't just about being electrifying. The opening theme, for example, is a mournful hymn of longing and nostalgia that in Argerich's hands is simply *fast.* See Spot. See Spot Run. See Spot Run Fast. But there's more to the "Rach 3" than this approach.
At the speeds at which she plays her tone tends to range from harsh to not quite so harsh. And her favorite expressive device seems to be rubato, which she can overuse. First movement, after exposition, the main theme comes back, followed by choppy playful piano part; then comes a series of rising variants on the theme, tension building to a great big fortissimo tutti. In those rising variants (sorry, I don't have a score in front of me so I can't give bar numbers) she varies and stretches the rubato almost to the point of pretension, to my ears. But whether it's "pretentious" or not, I've heard other pianists do so much more expressively with this section, altering the coloration of the notes, the pedaling, etc. But at the speed she is playing there's not much she apparently can do besides the push-pull rubato. It's dramatic and exciting the first time, but after repeated listenings it gets a little limiting. (Please note in reference to the reviewer above who said he listened to Rachmaninoff's own recording: I didn't say she does nothing here, just what she does is pretentious and frankly cliched.)
This performance is also poorly recorded (not her fault, of course), with a recessed and often muffled orchestra. There are key sections where the brass cannot be heard.
The Tchaikovksy is better-recorded and a little less extreme. It's a pleasurable concerto to listen to once in a while, but I've never been a full-time fan of this work. Martha's is as good as recording as anyone's but there are others, and the accompaniment is a little rough. A nice filler, but not a must-have.
All-in-all, this recording actually is worth owning, especially if you're a fan of virtuoso piano playing. But it's hardly the last word in the Rach 3, but its reputation is such that I fear many people, always looking for (and believing the hype about) "ultimate" recordings, will stop searching after acquiring this one, because after all the sticker on the shrink wrap says it's "The Ultimate Rachmaninoff 3rd," so it is, right? Nope. Worth hearing, definitely. Even worth owning perhaps (despite the warts outlined above, I still keep my copy), but there's still so much in this music that Argerich and company don't bring out. Besides, the Third is too rich a piece for any one version to be called "The Ultimate." Have a listen. There's a lot to enjoy. But beware the hype.