Rachmaninov music for 2 pianos

0 of 5 stars

Suite No.1 for two pianos, Op.5 (Fantaisie-tableaux)
Suite No.2 for two pianos, Op.17
Symphonic Dances

Emanuel Ax & Yefim Bronfman (pianos)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: March 2002

These performances are unusually restrained, as if the musicians were reluctant to give way to too much emotion. Ax plays ’piano 1’ in the First Suite, and the melting ’Barcarole’ that opens this, with its fine control of feeling, provides for me the sweetest and best moment on the disc. Bronfman plays ’piano 1’ in the remainder of the pieces, and perhaps his renowned virtuosity gets the better of him – I looked for more fantasy in these interpretations, something that strayed from simply being impeccable ensemble, and horses jumping fences in their stride.

Take the Symphonic Dances with which the CD opens. “Noon” is solid, stolid even and generally foursquare, and though “Twilight” conveys a sense of mystery, it also drags. Where one hopes for the music to take flight, one frequently finds an earth-bound heaviness, as in the ’Waltz’ and ’Tarantella’ of the Second Suite, or a hectoring rhetoric, as with ’Russian Easter’ that concludes ’Fantaisie-tableaux’. In the slow movements, the performers seem to concentrate on the music’s sheer scale rather than the variation of detail and nuance that the many notes allow.

While the symphonic scale of the pieces (after all the Dances are more familiar in their orchestral version) are powerfully conveyed, the same cannot be said in terms of warmth – it’s difficult to feel that “Twilight” and “Midnight” are part of Rachmaninov’s compositional swansong.

Sony Classical’s part in this disc is exemplary. The presentation is attractive, arty and piano-themed (some pages are set out in black and white, like piano keys) without being precious, with interesting notes and a translation of the Epigraphs to Op.5. One might say, indeed, that the notes make more of Rachmaninov’s romanticism than do the performers. The recording, as ever from Sony, is clean and clear, and has made allowance for the bigger sound of two pianos over one.

It goes without saying that Ax and Bronfman make easy work of the technical and intellectual demands of this repertoire. But though Rachmaninov’s is heroic music, these performances are somewhat stiff and need their hearts worn a little more on their sleeves. We expect everything from artists of this stature and, in particular that they rise above the routine. In this case, it is as if the sheer difficulties of the works made the performers feel exempt from adding more personality, that sense of danger and immediacy that is so present in, say, Argerich’s duo performances.

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