Denis Matsuev and Valery Gergiev, frequent musical partners, close friends off-stage, have now released all the Rachmaninov Piano Concertos (and Paganini Rhapsody) on the Mariinsky label bar the Fourth. This version of the Second gets on with the job without being special – occasionally heavy-handed in the opening Moderato; more lyrically responsive in the reprise of the Adagio; aspiring to (short-winded) athletics, higher spheres later, in the Finale. If you want something to tug the heartstrings, then better to look elsewhere – including the composer's own recordings, there is after all nearly a century of choice. Matsuev's brand of pianism (Dorensky-trained) has always been about digging into rather than caressing the instrument, he forces more than blooms the sound. Working the notes hard, rattling off octaves, punching chords, wearing the hammers, is when he's at his most representative. Given their need to journey other plains of expression and contrast, the quieter, more mysterious passages of this Concerto (the Finale's exoticised roulades, for example) call generally for a finer poet at the helm, a more eloquently, emotionally liberated 'singer'. On a point of interpretation: in other performances I've heard from Matsuev, he's been inclined to rhetorically slow down the opening eight bars of chords and subdominant pedal. In this recording he doesn't, the tempo is structurally maintained into the ensuing arpeggios and orchestral first subject.
Prokofiev's killer G-minor Concerto, massive and challenging, plays directly to Matsuev's strengths. But what is welcome is that while he can pump iron like no tomorrow – the climax of the notorious cadenza (around half the length of the first movement), leading into the oceanic return of the orchestra, is palpably frightening, similarly the “post-cadential meditation” of the Finale – he also finds a narrative: the 'Russianness' of the opening, the oneness of stars and steppe, is affecting, albeit in ways different from the declamation of Krainev, Demidenko's valediction, or the glacial dreams of Vinnitskaya. If the Scherzo is a white-water ride, fingers tightly locked, the Intermezzo is about channelling fantasy and the fantastical through gritty landscapes exactingly pulse-driven. More dynamically varied, with garishly coloured orchestral tuttis, the Finale unleashes some brilliant pianistic moments, breathtakingly articulated, the bass end volcanic, the upper registers chiselled, the whole cascading towards a roaring finish high on adrenalin.
Between 1995 and 1997 Gergiev set down a Prokofiev cycle with Toradze (Philips), in the case of the Second broader than Matsuev on all counts but the Scherzo. Conductorially, his view of the music hasn't changed that much – still the same massiveness of sound and balance, crispness of string attacks, the same snarling low brass in the Finale. Occasionally things are less tidy: the very first phrase, for instance, never an easy ensemble opener.
Favouring a closely miked piano (Leviathan-like, deprived of air or intimacy), the sound is variably managed, better in the Prokofiev than Rachmaninov. The credits tell us that the performances were recorded live – the absence of audience noise, the artificial silence between tracks, the feeling of an empty room, doesn't give that impression. What transpires in the Finale of the Rachmaninov, at the eleven-minute mark, seemingly a mixing or reverb issue, is unfortunate. Having just one man, Vladimir Ryabenko in this case, do everything – production, engineering, editing, mixing, mastering – can be a risky strategy. Mistakes will happen.