Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1
Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op.18
Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor, Op.30
Piano Concerto No 4 in G minor, Op.40
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Stephen Hough (piano)
Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Recorded at the Eugene McDermott Concert Hall, Morton H Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas on 29 June 2003 (Rhapsody) and live in concerts during April and May 2004
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: October 2004
CD No: HYPERION
CDA67501/2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 26 minutes
Curiously, perhaps, this release is not part of Hyperion’s ever-expanding “Romantic Piano Concertos” series, unlike Stephen Hough’s other concerto releases for the company (i.e. Mendelssohn, Scharwenka and Sauer, and Saint-Saëns). This Rachmaninov cycle is nonetheless a most welcome addition to the CD catalogue (and also available on SACD too).
The four concertos were recorded live over three weeks in March and April this year at the Dallas Symphony’s home (the impressively named Eugene McDermott Concert Hall in the similarly gilded Morton H Meyerson Symphony Center) with a week and four performances given over to the Second Concerto, then Concertos 1 and 4 in the same programme and, finally, the Third Concerto. The Paganini Rhapsody was put down as a studio recording the previous year as an “upbeat” to the production.
An extraordinary achievement (somebody could work out how many musical notes Hough had to keep in his memory for this project!) from the logistical point of view (especially as a thunderstorm disrupted the recording equipment in one of the performances) and as performances and recordings. They may also prove to be controversial, in that Hough and his conductor (also a pianist) Andrew Litton have consciously dusted off the received accretions of ‘performance style’ since the composer’s death, to go back to the characteristics Rachmaninov himself would have recognised.
Hough remarks in the booklet that some of the first records he ever got were Rachmaninov’s own recordings of all these works (now available on various reissues, not least Naxos Historical), and how amazed he was that other performances he heard were so different; slower and far less flexible than the composer’s own. But Hough and Litton have not slavishly recreated Rachmaninov’s recordings; no, they make the works live and breathe with their own impetus. That they work extremely well on their own terms can immediately be evinced by the ecstatic reaction of the Dallas audiences’ cheering at the end of the four concertos. And the natural balance, only occasionally in the louder solo passages obscuring some orchestral detail, is also a plus factor.
The most extraordinary ‘innovation’ is the speed of the famous octave chords at the beginning of the Second Concerto. Hough doesn’t linger; he takes Rachmaninov’s Moderato tempo at face value – unlike the composer’s own recording (and questions Lucy Parham’s odd remark on BBC Radio 3’s “Building a Library” that she thought Rachmaninov’s speeds were faster than he wanted simply to get them on to the limited time available on 78s) and there’s a tangible logic in how this speed ties the rest of the movement together. Similar are the speeds in the Third Concerto, the result much tauter than we have become used to, with some brilliant and quixotic finger work, especially in the final movement. Not only revelations but also cohesive to the works in question. Hough is clear that he doesn’t expect to play the works always like this, but it will be interesting to see how many pianists revise their own interpretations because of these recordings.
Serendipitously, interest in Rachmaninov’s playing style also informed Krystian Zimerman’s pairing of the First and Second Concertos with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. Instead of being recorded over a short period, this disc – released in 2003 – was actually recorded in 1997 (Op.1) and 2000 (Op.18), and Zimerman remains slow and portentous in the opening of the latter concerto, making Hough so much more arresting in the comparison. Given the difference in years of recording, it is not surprising that Zimerman’s sound between the concertos is noticeably different – with completely different recording engineers and producers, a retrograde step in the Second Concerto with a very forward piano and distant, if resonant, orchestra. Hough’s Second is much better balanced (and, incidentally, is three minutes shorter, although still slightly longer by a minute or so than Rachmaninov himself) and Litton and his Dallas players are a suitable match for Hough’s verve and sense of adventure.
The first disc brings together the two concertos Rachmaninov revised – the First holds its place in the repertoire as Rachmaninov’s youthful calling card, but was revised extensively in 1917 as the Russian Revolution began. The Fourth was not a success when first heard, one of Rachmaninov’s very few works from his period in exile, and was later cut, prior to Rachmaninov recording it in Philadelphia. Hough is convinced by the revision and plays it for all it is worth; for me it was particularly noticeable how it is a clear indicator to his two last major orchestral scores, the Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances. It’s high-profile performances like this one that just could establish the concerto into the mainstream repertoire once and for all. Fingers crossed!
Which leaves only the Paganini Rhapsody, its audience-less sound space allowing the final quip to properly tell. Hough’s admirable anti-sentimental stance allows maximum musical extraction without unwanted overt emotional distraction. Scintillating!
Apart from the uncharacteristic paucity of musical analysis of the Fourth Concerto, David Fanning provides intelligent and interesting notes, including an intriguing (but clearly so far unsubstantiated) alternative idea about the Second Piano Concerto, as told directly to Hough by the composer’s grandson, Alexander, having heard it from his grandmother. This is the idea that Rachmaninov was not so much reliant on the hypnotism of the concerto’s dedicatee, Dr Nikolai Dahl, but by the beauty of Dahl’s daughter; hence the many consultations!
All in all it comes together as an important and distinguished release. One final thought – with regard to ‘library recordings’. I’m not one to hold much credence to the idea, rather believing that the only way to recognise the genius of a work is to hear many different performances, I liken recordings to translations of the score which is, in literary terms, the original book in its original language. Just as different translations of Homer, Virgil, Cervantes, Balzac and Tolstoy (for example) can offer different insights to the original work, so – perhaps even more so – can performances of music shed different light on the same piece. Singling out Rachmaninov himself (Naxos), Ashkenazy/Previn (Decca), Shelley (Chandos) and Rudy (EMI), Hough’s new recording takes its own special place, to which I will return often, as it has given me a deeper insight into Rachmaninov’s music.