Does the world need another recorded cycle of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos? For that matter, does Deutsche Grammophon?
Well, the label got one, recorded in February of this, his 150th birthday year, not far from where Rachmaninoff lived his final days. A short drive from the composer’s last address, 610 N. Elm Dr. in Beverly Hills, will take you to Walt Disney Concert Hall, where DG captured the four concertos, plus the de facto fifth concerto, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with two of its superstars, Yuja Wang and Gustavo Dudamel.
You may wonder why this recording was made with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and not with Yannick Nezét-Séguin and The Philadelphia Orchestra, with whom Yuja performed the cycle in January and February, including in a now-famous stunt they pulled off at Carnegie Hall where the pianist played all five pieces in one day. One reason must be that Nezét-Séguin and company had already released a complete cycle recently, with Daniil Trifonov at the keyboard — also on DG. Another is that the cycle was scheduled in relatively relaxed intervals with the LA Phil — one concerto per concert instead of two or more, thus increasing the chances for better performances.
Rather than sequencing the cycle in chronological order, Yuja starts the set off with the Second Concerto, playing the opening chords deliberately and portentously, as if slowly prying open the gate to Rachmaninoff’s garden. Then comes the First Concerto, followed by the Fourth and the Rhapsody. The massive Third Concerto comes last, thus becoming a crowd-rousing finale.
First, a few general observations about the performances, which run pretty consistently throughout the set. Yuja is a dazzling technician, crystalline in touch in the fluttery passages yet also brittle and pointed where called for. She is not a bionic machine, though, as is sometimes rumored; she imparts considerable lyrical feeling in the more Romantic rhetoric, though her cadenzas sometimes wander until they eventually find some sense of direction. Dudamel lays down a luxurious carpet of sound when he is not hot on Yuja’s trail, chasing and keeping up with her exploits in the fast lane.
The LA Phil plays splendidly, and the sound quality is warm and deep, though it bears not much resemblance to the actual live sound of Disney Hall for these concerts, other than in the recording’s firm bass lines and lots of detail. Nonetheless, the engineering is top-notch and easy on the ears.
Focusing in a bit, the Third Concerto and the Rhapsody are the best performances in the package. Yuja has previously recorded the Third with Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, 10 years ago. The new interpretation is a tiny bit slower in the first movement, yet ultimately it flows better. Yuja’s articulation is sharper, the rubatos are more finely judged, and the second and third movements are more expressive. There are passages in this performance in which the clarity of detail in her technique rivals that of Vladimir Horowitz — and like Volodya, she opts for the main first-movement cadenza instead of the weightier, more difficult alternate one that Van Cliburn, Lazar Berman, and others have used.
Dudamel and Yuja have fun scampering through the hijinks of the Rhapsody. She plays with exquisite delicacy and creates plenty of fleeting thunder when the need arises. However, the ingenious 18th variation is pulled out of shape by Yuja — listen to the more restrained yet infinitely more affecting 1934 recording by the composer to get an idea of how this could go — but Gustavo rights the ship in the orchestral restatement of the memorable tune. By contrast, the Trifonov/Philadelphia performance is heavier in general yet more stable and satisfying than Yuja/Los Angeles in this crucial variation.
The pattern of astonishingly clear and accurate fast passages set off by wandering lyrical ones takes hold in the First and Second Concertos. Again, the composer provided useful examples in his recordings made from 1929 to 1941. For instance, in the second movement of the Second Concerto, it’s the matter of internal timing where Rachmaninoff gets it just right, applying minimal rubato on the big tune and knowing how to come out of it and back into tempo. With Yuja, the lyrical feeling is there but not the rhetorical logic of the phrasing. Befitting the more abstract, relatively progressive aspects of the Fourth Concerto, Yuja and Dudamel play it in a more objective and rhythmically sharp manner than the earlier pieces.
This cycle can be recommended as a sensuous, razzle-dazzle choice in the crowded Rachmaninoff arena. Certainly, it has captured some of Yuja’s most distinguished, even thrilling work yet. But is it as emotionally moving as some of the great recordings of the past, including the composer’s own? Not so much.
And just as this new LA Phil recording was coming out this month, another has snuck up on us — a streaming-only release of Arturo Márquez’s recent violin concerto Fandango and Alberto Ginastera’s complete Estancia ballet. This is precisely the kind of stuff Dudamel should have been recording en masse with the Phil all along — Latin American music new and old, which he does better than just about anyone.