Recording of June 2001: Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto 2

RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto 2
With: Prelude in g-sharp, Op.32 No.12; Etudes-Tableaux, Op.33 Nos. 1, 2, 9; Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op.42
Hélène Grimaud, piano; Vladimir Ashkenazy, Philharmonia Orchestra
Teldec 8573-84376-2 (CD). 2001. Friedemann Engelbrecht, prod.; Eberhard Sengpiel, Andreas Florczak, engs. DDD. TT: 70:33
Performance *****
Sonics *****

Sergei Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, now almost exactly 100 years old, was the composer's first major creation of the 20th century and a personal triumph over the debilitating loss of confidence he experienced after the public failure of his Symphony 1 in 1897. It is well known that, in desperation, he sought the help of a therapist, Nikolai Dahl, who used hypnosis to help the composer overcome his creative block. The legend even arose that, in the midst of this drought of inspiration, a fellow student at the Moscow Conservatory, Nikita Morozov, allowed the hapless Rachmaninoff to use a freshly composed melody as his own in the third movement—a tune made doubly famous in 1946, by Frank Sinatra and the [Axel Stordahl] Orchestra, as "Full Moon and Empty Arms." It is difficult to imagine, however, that anyone but Rachmaninoff could have written this or any of the other immortal themes of this concerto, all of which are spun out effortlessly into seemingly unending melody.

Any young pianist setting out to record this work faces the daunting prospect of entering a marketplace filled with classic recordings: those of Arthur Rubinstein, William Kapell, and two by Rachmaninoff himself, accompanied by no less than Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy, both with the Philadelphia Orchestra. To achieve a fresh perspective on this work requires a profound connection with Rachmaninoff's idiom, an intimate rapport which young French pianist Hélène Grimaud exhibited early on.

Born in Aix-en-Provence and currently living in Quebec with a pack of pet wolves, Grimaud's performance at age 15 of Rachmaninoff's Piano Sonata 2 brought her international attention. This recording of Concerto 2 with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra readily displays the qualities that draw her to Rachmaninoff's music—what Grimaud describes as its "nobility of heart and aristocratic expression."

Grimaud's performance never seeks to draw attention to itself. It possesses, instead, a smoldering intensity that draws the listener in without ever seeming self-conscious. Her metaphor for the lyrical yet impassioned second movement—"metal that the smith heats until it is white hot and that becomes dark bronze when it cools down"—is also an apt description of her performance. The music travels in a broad arc, with piano and orchestra sharing the spotlight. Grimaud is greatly aided by the collaboration of conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy, a great pianist in his own right who understands every nuance of the piece. Teldec's engineers seem to have shared this unified conception of the work, with a realistic balance that doesn't excessively highlight the piano. The dynamic contrasts are enormous, capturing the music's full range of drama.

The solo works on this disc present varied facets of Rachmaninoff's work: the brooding, melancholy lyricism of the Preludes; the more abstract tone painting of the Etudes-Tableaux; and the turn in the 1930s toward a more Spartan classicism in the Variations on a Theme of Corelli, which is similar to the later Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in its austerity and sophistication. Grimaud wonderfully captures all of these moods, as well as the lingering nostalgia present in all of Rachmaninoff's music. Indeed, with the Corelli Variations, it seems as though Rachmaninoff is bidding farewell forever to the world of European romanticism, which he left at the height of the October revolution in 1917. However, we can visit this world any time we choose through the beautiful pianism of Hélène Grimaud.—Hyperion Knight