Rachmaninov: The Four Piano Concertos & Paganini Rhapsody – Hai-Kyung Suh & Alexander Dmitriev

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Rachmaninov
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

Hai-Kyung Suh (piano)

St Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra
Alexander Dmitriev

Recorded 1-10 July 2010 in St Petersburg Philharmonia Grand Hall


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: December 2010
CD No: DG 7712/4764125
(3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 41 minutes

Branded under Deutsche Grammophon’s yellow banner and stamped “Universal Music Group International”, this St Petersburg-recorded, South Korean-produced set is intended exclusively for the latter’s market, although it may be available in Japan and possibly the States. However, with the Internet and Google, it shouldn’t be a problem to find and is well-worth hunting down. Released in South Korea on 7 October 2010, something like 3,000 copies had been sold five days later. Hai-Kyung Suh is a folk-hero. She graduated from the Juilliard School where she studied with Sascha Gorodnitzki and was the first female recipient of the Petschek Award. She has already recorded for DG, a 2-CD set of various short pieces. Hai-Kyung Suh has also been in the wars, having suffered breast-cancer – this release flags the Pink Ribbon Ambassador logo – and these St Petersburg sessions took place after her recovery.

Produced and engineered by Tony Faulkner, these are ‘real’ performances, the music’s development the preserve of the performers rather than the control-room and/or during post-production. The recorded takes are long and the editing minimal, the sound quality naturally immediate and well-balanced and-blended, the spacious characteristics of the Grand Hall realistically captured, even during silences. What we hear in terms of dynamics and piano-and-orchestra interaction is the expression of the musicians faithfully transcribed through the recording machine. Thus the odd hiccough is allowed to get through, usually matters of tuning in the woodwinds (a characterful section in its post-Soviet tones) and the occasional fallibility on behalf of the soloist, as well as such ‘noises’ as the orchestra’s page-turning and the odd squeaky chair (it’s just like being at the sessions as they took place). The occasional glitch is of no importance, for Hai-Kyung Suh and Alexander Dmitriev had already worked on Rachmaninov’s music for concert performances and the well-prepared St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra has this composer’s music in its blood: everyone came to this particular gathering knowing what to do and how to do it.

The opening of the First Piano Concerto is both brazen and deliberate, the treble and bass of the piano captured ‘as one’ by the recording, the orchestra tangible as well as existing in a defined space. It’s a grand and sensitive performance, and if the finale needs greater impetuosity, instrumental clarity and motivic relationship is spot-on. To open Piano Concerto No.2 the piano’s chords are arpeggiated by the soloist to launch a powerfully reached performance, deep and dark, soulful and confiding, chaste but on the edge in the slow movement. The mighty Third Piano Concerto is given a leisurely and shapely outing but one not without tension or indeed Russian timbre and emotionalism, to which Hai-Kyung Suh does not barnstorm but pulls the music off the page with devotion as well as volatility; an account of structure and content in equilibrium (with a fine blaze of trumpets at the close) – such form and musical-identity holding good for all five works. In its sophistication and economy, the underrated Fourth Piano Concerto is arguably the greatest of Rachmaninov’s piano-and-orchestra works (with plenty of expert witnesses, many of them pianists, to echo this view). The concerto may be less opulent than its predecessors, even a tad severe, yet it is full of beauty, passion and drive. It’s a difficult work to bring off, not least because it needs a virtuoso orchestra and conductor who can sift and balance its polyphonic arguments, especially in the first movement, which is here tightly organised to its climactic peak – but, ideally the opening of the work needs more-prominent and -articulate woodwinds. The finale moves-along a little cautiously, the performance as a whole, despite much that is arresting, suggesting that this ‘odd man out’ masterpiece wasn’t absorbed quite enough by these performers. No worries with the Paganini Rhapsody though, given a disc to itself and copious tracks, which is scintillating and lyrically blossoming, the famous Variation XVIII integrated into the whole but with no lack of ardour.

A few reservations aside, this is a most attractive set of freshly-considered and candid music-making. Maybe an international release beckons? During 2011 this partnership will set down Tchaikovsky’s piano-and-orchestra oeuvre – something to look forward to.

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