was foreordained, kismet, written in the stars, that sooner or later Deutsche
Grammophon would bring together its young, superstars Yuja Wang and Gustavo
Dudamel to record the now ubiquitous Rachmaninoff Third Concerto. And it was
entirely predictable what kind of performance that would be, given their
charismatic personalities — impulsive, volatile, Romantic in the extreme. And
this would seem an appropriate, if not sensible way to present a concerto that's known for its bipolar moodiness and potential for technical fireworks.
So this must have all seemed a sure thing in the planning stage: a concerto
tailor-made for the personalities of the artists performing it.
But not so fast. Successful performances of the Rachmaninoff Third have this in common: they avoid fluctuating tempos and resist the temptation to indulge in virtuosic or emotional display for its own sake. This concerto, above all others, demands a steady hand and a sure sense of destination: more ebb and flow, less push and pull. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but I offer as evidence the composer's own authoritative recording (made in 1941 with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy): it is rich and varied, but also controlled. The parts fit seamlessly into a coherent narrative.
Too often Wang and Dudamel substitute instant gratification for structural integrity. After a time, their tendency to speed up for dramatic sections and to slow it way down for lyric sections comes to feel contrived. It also makes the music seem much more episodic and sectionalized than it really is. If you rush the first movement climax, the cadenza that follows it is going to seem like music from another planet altogether. The opening of the slow movement is so self-consciously lugubrious, it sounds more than a little schmaltzy. At the very end of the third movement, Wang and Dudamel accelerate breathlessly into the climax, and then give us a huge ritard before scampering over the finish line — a tactic that makes these powerful moments seem superficial, melodramatic. In the hands of these two young artists, the concerto sounds like second-rate music.
I have no such reservations about the Prokofiev. This is the greatest performance of the work I've ever heard, recorded or live. The Second Concerto is at least as technically demanding as the Rachmaninoff, but it couldn't be more different. This is Prokofiev playing the enfant terrible, the composer of the fire-breathing Scythian Suite, whose fondest wish was to outrage staid concert audiences. And given the contemporary reviews, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. "The performance left listeners frozen with fright, hair standing on end," wrote an eyewitness to the premiere. "A Babel of insane sounds heaped upon one another without rhyme or reason. A cacophony that has nothing to do with civilized music," stated a typical review. And there's no doubt it. The Second Concerto is a deliberate provocation, a crazy salad that changes mood with a dizzying rapidity. The fierce first movement cadenza is one of the longest in the entire repertory. Sviatislov Richter described it as "a dragon devouring its young." Wang and Dudamel are very much at home in the concerto's skittering motor rhythms, its constantly shifting perspectives. Here their impulsive, combustible approach perfectly suits the music they're playing, and the results are genuinely thrilling. As they make less of the Rachmaninoff, they make more of the Prokofiev. In their hands, it sounds like the best of his five concertos. By now modern audiences have grown used to dealing with disruptive, dissonant music. Still, Wang and Dudamel's performance will make your hair stand on end. The final convulsion will shock the peanuts out of your M&M's.
The sound here is a big improvement on a Sony disc I recently
reviewed (Lang Lang and Simon Rattle doing the Bartok Second and Prokofiev Third
Concertos). The piano does get the spotlight, but the recording gives us a much
more natural balance between soloist and orchestra, and details are not lost in
the wash. Dudamel's Venezuelan band plays with their usual blend of
technical control and bright-eyed enthusiasm, but they too seem more fully
engaged in the Prokofiev than in the Rachmaninoff. If you want to hear a
Rachmaninoff Third that presents a unified dramatic arc, I'd heartily
recommend the recording by Garrick Ohlsson with Robert Spano conducting the
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (on its own label). Here two experienced
professionals easily outshine the superstars. And if you just happen to be
looking for something more volatile, Horowitz/Reiner or Argerich/Chially will
take you out for a stroll along the razor's edge. Recommended for the
Prokofiev. I'll leave it up to you to decide if the glass is half full or half