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Sergei Rachmaninoff
Concertos for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1, No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40; Rhapsody ON a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Valentina Lisitsa (piano), Micheal Francis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra

 

Concertos for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (a), No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 (b), Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43 (a), Trio for Piano and Strings No. 1 in G minor (c), Prelude in G minor, No. 5

Lang Lang (piano), Vadim Repin (violin), Mischa Maisky (cello) Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra (a), Yuri Temirkanov conducting the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra (b). Valentina Lisitsa live at the Royal Albert Hall
Music by Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, Scriabin, and Rachmaninov
Review By Max Westler

 

   

  Pianists Valentina Lisitsa and Lang Lang have at least one thing in common: both have made the difficult transition from classical performer to classical celebrity. Lisitsa's a "YouTube sensation:" her videos have attracted 60 million views and over 100,000 subscribers. And Lang, lest we forget, is the man "who conquered the classical world with his dazzling technique and charisma." And here they are both playing Rachmaninoff, a composer central to their identities. But that's as far as the similarities go. For their conceptions of that composer couldn't be more different. Lang's album is titled, "The Romance of Rachmaninoff." But apparently that romance takes place on a psychoanalyst's couch. For Lang, Rachmaninoff's music reflects a severe bipolar disorder. Or at least that's the impression I get from listening to his twitchy, convulsive performances. The G minor Prelude is one of the composer's most straightforward pieces: a steely march that pauses to consider a plaintive, lyric subject, then returns with even greater vehemence. Lang inserts little hesitations into the march tempo, transforming it into a study in neuroticism—or at least a march that's developed a bad case of hiccups. The C minor concerto is shrouded in melancholy. The dirge-like opening measures set the tone for a funereal reading that's surprisingly wan and underpowered. The D minor concerto is better, livelier, but tends to lurch nervously from one subject with no clear sense of destination. The Rhapsody is the best performance here: Lang fully characterizes each variation with imaginative, often brilliant support from Gergiev and his Mariinsky forces. The Trio is also well done, but just a little on the schmaltzy side.

Lisitsa's Rachmaninoff is not a man beset by inner demons, but a composer in full command of his considerable powers. Characteristically she approaches this music with a youthful ardor and impetuosity. I've always felt that Lisitsa plays like a force of nature, without any trace of exaggeration or mannerism. The music simply flows out of her with a directness and purity of tone that are altogether ravishing.  In her hands, the familiar C minor and D minor concertos sound luminous, vibrant, newly minted. Her accounts of the First and Fourth are no less well done: the former intense and passionate, the latter full of wit and fantasy. Her Rhapsody might be less characterized than Lang's, but it's also more propulsive and urgent. I've never heard conductor Micheal Francis before, but he's a deeply engaged and sympathetic partner throughout. Lisista seems to have cast a spell on the orchestra too. How many times do you think the London Symphony Orchestra has suffered through this music before? Here they play these works with a sparkling vitality that exactly matches the spirit of Lisitsa's readings.

The sound of the Decca set is demonstration quality. In fact this is quite simply the best recording these works have ever received. You'll hear a spacious, realistic soundstage, a sense of transparency and detail that is in no way clinical, a luminous upper register, and a well-defined, visceral bottom end. The balance between piano and orchestra is well nigh perfect; the dialogue between piano and orchestra as clear as the proverbial bell. The DG set includes the kind of live recordings that can create challenges the Decca team did not have to contend with in the perfect acoustic of a studio. Still, the sound is disappointing: the balances contrived, the piano too prominently displayed, the orchestra recessed with many details smudged. The big loser is Temirkanov whose heroic support in the Third Concerto pretty much goes for naught.

I've included Lisitsa's Royal Albert Hall recital for the sake of those who might want a proper introduction before going on to purchase a complete set of Rachmaninoff concertos. Here Lisitsa works much the same magic: with self-effacing virtuosity, she converts some of the most often-played compositions in the entire repertory ("Fur Elise," for God's sake) into newly spun gold. You'll be consistently surprised by how fresh these familiar pieces sound. By the way, I've included a list of the full program after the ratings. Also, a word of advice as there's a DVD (and a Blu-ray) of this recital and it's definitely worth the added expense. As you can tell from the cover photo, Lisitsa is easy on the eyes, and watching her perform this music is a treat that can only add to your pleasure.

Nothing I can say will dissuade Lang Lang's many fans from purchasing the DG set, in which case the punishment fits the crime. Lisitsa's set of Rachmaninoff concertos now becomes the reference recording for these works. The Royal Albert Hall is recommended to everyone who loves the sound of a piano.

 

 

Performances

Lang Lang

Valentina Lisitsa

 

Enjoyment

Lang Lang

Valentina Lisitsa

 

Sound Quality

Lang Lang

Valentina Lisitsa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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