The Four Piano Concertos
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Earl Wild (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded in May 1965
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: October 2003
CD No: CHANDOS X10078(2)
The latest incarnation of the Earl Wild’s Rachmaninov re-emerges freshly re-mastered, repackaged in a slimline jewel case and at budget price. There have been several distinguished sets of the complete concertos – Ashkenazy/Previn, Ashkenazy/Haitink, and Rudy/Jansons – but this set has special claims to its place in the catalogue. Indeed, it has stood the test of time and one could make a reasonable case for its being the best complete set ever committed to disc, Rachmaninov’s own excepted.
Recorded in the space of a single week in the sympathetic ambience of Walthamstow Town Hall in late May 1965 and produced for Reader’s Digest by the legendary Charles Gerhardt, this cycle was one of those happy conjunctions which caught all concerned on the wing at exactly the right moment. Happily, the mercurial Earl Wild is still with us nearly 40 years on but I doubt he ever recorded anything finer than this. The Royal Philharmonic, four years after Beecham’s death, was still a remarkable instrument and its corporate and solo playing on these recordings has nothing to fear by comparison with any other orchestra, even the Philadelphia, which accompanies the composer. Last, but not least, Jascha Horenstein had a particular connection with Rachmaninov, and at the time of the recordings was enjoying an Indian summer of belated recognition.
Horenstein (born in Kiev) is often thought of primarily as an interpreter of Mahler and Bruckner. It is worth remembering that in 1927 he gave the Paris premiere of the Fourth Concerto with Rachmaninov as soloist, and according to Charles Gerhardt’s notes for the original Reader’s Digest set, he also performed the Second Concerto with the composer.
Rachmaninov performances have tended to get slower and more self-indulgent over the years. Rachmaninov’s own, however, were some of the least lachrymose you could expect to hear, with tempos to match. After all, he was an aristocrat; in his playing emotion was hinted at, seldom made explicit, and sentimentality had no part. Much the same patrician qualities informed the playing of his closest associates like Moiseiwitsch and Horowitz, and this similar quality is certainly in evidence in Wild’s scintillating, crisp, under-pedalled, hair-trigger response to this music – a glorious antidote to all those laboured self-indulgent performances one hears all to frequently nowadays.
If ever there has been a more committed razor-sharp traversal of the Paganini Rhapsody – even more so than Rachmaninov’s own – I have yet to hear it. (The playing of the orchestra’s first horn, presumably Alan Civil, in the Rhapsody and first two concertos is a class act.) The quality of all the concerto performances is remarkably even, so much so that it is almost invidious to single out a particular performance above the others; pressed though, I would say that one is unlikely to hear better performances of the first or last.
The 24-bit re-processing has taken what was always a warm and well-balanced recording on LP and improved on previous CD reissues – significantly so compared to the Chesky and more marginally, but still noticeably, compared to Chandos’s own previous.
Three very minor quibbles. 1. The Concertos are now given sequentially over the two CDs; No.1 collects the first and second concertos, a running time of 55 minutes, and Chandos has missed a trick by not including Horenstein’s quite remarkable The Isle of the Dead, which was made the following week, also with the RPO. 2. The cover features a soft-focus photo of a canoodling couple – the design appropriately credited to one Tim Feeley: do we really need this to sell Rachmaninov? 3. The recording venue is given as Kingsway Hall. According to all previous documentation, it was Walthamstow Town Hall.
Let none of this put you off. In its latest re-mastered incarnation, this arguably has to be the best-played, best-conducted, most-satisfying set of Rachmaninov’s four concertos and Rhapsody at any price – one of the glories of the catalogue.