Recording of August 2017: Rachmaninoff Piano Works

Rachmaninoff: Piano Sonata 2, Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Six Moments Musicaux
Evelina Vorontsova, piano
STH Quality Classics CD1416092 (CD). 2017. Paul Steverink, Boudwijn Zwart, prods.; Jaco van Houselt, eng. DDD. TT: 74:42
Performance ****½
Sonics *****

This is Russian-Dutch pianist Evelina Vorontsova's second recording; the first was in 2002. Born in 1972, she took fourth prize in the Rachmaninoff Competition at 18, and second prize at the International Franz Liszt Piano Competition two years later; in 2006, she won second prize in the International Piano and Orchestra Competition in Cantù, Italy (at which there was no first prize awarded). Judging from this CD and its very challenging program, she is a remarkable talent; one wonders why she is not more famous and signed to a major label.

A good section of the notes accompanying this release focus on Vorontsova's position in the Romantic tradition of the Moscow Conservatory, tracing her teachers far back and reading like those parts of Genesis 5 and 11 that offer the timeline from Adam to Abraham. Mikhail Voskresensky was Vorontsova's teacher; he was taught by Lev Oborin, who was taught by Konstantin Igumnov, a major player in Rachmaninoff's life. The notes will give you far more information than I needed. Vorontsova's playing is athletic and Romantic, her use of rubato (clearly a feature of all the other guys) pronounced. Nuf sed—but I would like to point out that, despite never rushing, she also never drags, or artificially underlines anything in the music. She is unaffected and profoundly musical.

The second piano sonata dates from 1913, but Rachmaninoff, finding some if its complications "superfluous," revised it in 1931; Vorontsova plays the revision. It's still not the proverbial walk in the park—its technical requirements are plentiful, and its mood changes extreme. After the impressively played fortissimi of the opening few minutes, in which Rachmaninoff seems to ask for too many notes to be played in too short a time, Vorontsova meets the lovely cascades of sweet, luscious melody (at about 6:00) with grace and a gentle touch, playing with lyricism all the way into the maniacal Allegro molto, which is played with care and clarity at a tempo at which one can actually hear the music.

The Corelli Variations, also from 1931, are yet another bête noire that must be conquered by serious Russian pianists. The theme is "La Folia"—not, in fact, by Corelli, but an anonymous tune that began to appear at the end of the 15th century, almost simultaneously in France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Corelli famously used it for the 23 variations in his sonata for violin and harpsichord, but C.P.E. Bach, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Francesco Geminiani (among others) also fell for its lovely, catchy simplicity. There are 20 variations here, and even Rachmaninoff tended to eliminate a few in performance—he claimed he could tell by the audience's coughing whether or not they were too much.

Vorontsova begins with an amazingly slow, clear, delicate Theme in the translucent upper octaves of her Steinway; Variation I, in the lower half, is dark, dark, dark—and then, of course, the Variations' complexities take hold. Vorontsova's command of rubato is spectacular in Var. IV; the charm of V and VI are rudely interrupted by the ferocity of VII. The odd syncopation of VII, marked misterioso, is mysterious indeed. The jolly X should be merrier; it's a bit heavy here, and XI and XII should be the dark contrast to it. Var. XIV recalls the opening theme in its tempo—it's as close to a jazz improvisation as Rachmaninoff gets. The Vivace of XVI is wonderfully weird, and XVII's moodiness rings true. Vorontsova's skill and awareness of both the forest and the trees are remarkable throughout, and the sensitive coda dies with grace.

The early Six Moments Musicaux are studies of forms distinguished by styles typical of their eras: a nocturne, a barcarolle, etc. Moods range from "easy listening" to the gloomy Rachmaninoff we know and tolerate. The Allegretto is played ravishingly and with heart, and so is the Adagio sostenuto (the Barcarolle). The gigantic Maestoso is a five-course meal unto itself.

The recording was made in a former monastery, with Brüel & Kjær 4040 omni hybrid and DPA 4015A microphones. It allows us to spotlessly hear Vorontsova's very original playing, which never lacks intellectual or emotional depth. A beautiful if challenging CD.—Robert Levine

artandlife's picture

Mr. Levine asks why Ms. Vorontsova "is not more famous and signed to a major label".

I cannot say anything regarding the lack of her renown in general, but concerning recordings and the mentioned "major labels", my comment is the following:
One often wonders that there are still so many musicians with such a small amount of phantasy, ideas and readiness for musical innovation! They record and publish (I'm tempted to say: ad nauseam...) the same old warhorse-repertoire over and over again, a repertoire that is already present in hundreds of previous recordings. They unfortunately seem not to realize how boring and useless that sort of repetition is.
The recording presented here, reviewed by Mr. Levine, may be nice and well done, but with the mentioned unimaginativeness in the repertoire choice, on the one hand one does marvel concerning the artist's lack of interesting conceptions, but on the other hand does NOT marvel that there is no major label being interested in such a recording project.

You may record all that well-trodden stuff for the 50th or 100th time if you are a rather renowned artist. You shouldn't do it nevertheless, because it's still boring and an evidence of your lack of imagination; but resulting from your renown, you can afford to do it if you like; which means you'll find enough people indefatigably buying the 50th or 100th recording of this music, and therefore you'll also find a major label speculating for the commercial success of your renown. In other words: You may record whatever you want, your illustrious name will keep selling the CDs.
This status is enviable, and the less renowned artists may think it is unjust, too. Yes, of course it is, but that's the essence of commerce and showbusiness -- your renown is decisive.

If --on the contrary-- you are an unknown artist, you should rather stay away from the warhorse-repertoire (not in concerts of course, but in your recordings). The standard major label may not be interested in your fanciful CD recording with lots of world premieres, either; because they'll think that, regardless of your interesting CD programme, your lack of renown will anyway prevent the sales rates they require.
But among the common reviewers, you'll have a better chance to get some attention. Mr. Levine seems to be an exception in this regard, but the usual reviewer will certainly think something like: "Oh no, not this again! Why the hell do those musicians think their interpretation is so unprecedented and revolutionary that the world needs the 50th/100th recorded version of that well-known sonata XY etc. etc.?? We have enough to do to review the "big names" with their relentless recordings of that old standard repertoire (and that's boring enough). Please not the unknown artists, too..."

One can understand those reviewers, can't one?
Indeed, it's surprising when non-renowned musicians seem to hope to be able to arouse any interest for their recording if the same music is available in more than enough recordings by the illustrious and much more attractive "big names".

This may be the answer to Mr. Levine's question concerning the major labels.
And anyway it's a pity that there is so much dull repertoire repetition in the recording market...

dalethorn's picture

I am somewhat of a classical neophyte. I have a few dozen CDs of the "warhorse" material already, but not several versions of each. When I read a review like this and buy the CD (or the download), it's like discovering a new world of music, with the bonus being the exceptionally good sound. To me, these reviews are a great source for music, because I don't want to spend lots of hours looking over vast catalogs of recordings, trying to imagine what to buy. Neither do I feel the need to attend schools and classes "learning" how to appreciate what I already appreciate, but with greater discernment so that I can look down on the "warhorse" material like the more savvy listeners do.

kevin evans's picture

I am a great admirer of Rachmaninoff's piano music. This Vorontsova disc got my attention by John Atkinson, he used it in his test of the Meridian Ultra DAC. My Dynaudio Craft loudspeakers and Chord electronics are at times too critical, they are able to reproduce music in its best way, but for example my favourite Lazar Berman disc does has its limitations in sound quality. I downloaded this Vorontsova disc from Qobuz and from the first notes I was blown away. To me the music is important, I am not impressed by names or other. Rachmaninoff is very often used to show off, but this disc is about music and not to show off. For example I listened to Van Cliburn's prize winner 2017 Yekwon Sunwoo Rachmaninoff's 2nd Sonata. His performance could not convince me, with Vorontsova it is different, so many things feel so logic now. John Atkinson uses the word 'majestic' I believe, and he is right.

About the Corelli Variations. I do have several recordings of this work but it is never been my favourite Rachmaninoff, the Lazar Berman is the one I can listen from the begin to the end. Others like Ashkenazy does not make this possible for me. This Vorontsova has the same qualities as the Berman, but this Vorontsova disc does offer far better sound quality. The last Variation for example after say 30 sec, you can feel the notes, resulting in goosebumps all over. That is also what I like about this CD, Ashkenazy is a great musician, but his playing never gives me goosebumps, this Vorontsova disc does, not once, but several times. Also, I never could really understand the Corelli Variations, but now it seems I understand them more and more, I am rediscovering this work, a good thing.