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CD Review

Sergei Rachmaninoff

The Works for Piano & Orchestra

  • Piano Concerto #1 in F Sharp minor, Op. 1
  • Piano Concerto #3 in D minor, Op. 30
  • Piano Concerto #2 in C minor, Op. 18
  • Piano Concerto #4 in G minor, Op. 40
  • Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Valentina Lisitsa, piano
London Symphony Orchestra/Michael Francis
Decca 4784890 2CDs 146m (65:41 & 80:14)
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from ArkivMusic.comFind it at CD Universe Find it at JPC

Undoubtedly, many readers already know the story of popular Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa regarding this recording: in 2007 her career was flat and she was considering abandoning it in favor of work as a translator for the government. She decided instead to begin posting videos on YouTube and eventually developed a huge following. She also began making appearances with violinist Hillary Hahn and then, with nearly $300,000 of her own money, hired the London Symphony Orchestra, conductor Michael Francis and technical personnel to make these recordings of the four Rachmaninov concertos and Rhapsody. It took two years for a label to finally agree to pick up these recordings and issue them. It has apparently paid off for both Ms. Lisitsa and the label: this two-disc set has sold phenomenally well since its March 12 release, reaching as high as #164 at, the highest selling classical recording I've ever seen listed at that mega retailer's site. It was issued in Europe a bit earlier and drew rave reviews from major critics there. Actually, the concertos and Rhapsody were made available as downloads late last year and presumably also did very well in sales.

So many other reviewers and admirers have been heaping praise on Ms. Lisitsa of late, including me when I reviewed her Naxos recital disc here earlier this year (Naxos 8.572491), but is all the hype about the pianist justified? I can only say that if I had to take one set of the Rachmaninov concertos to a desert island, this would undoubtedly be my choice. In general, Lisitsa employs moderate to fast tempos, though lyrical and slower music never sound rushed. She uses relatively little rubato and offers a wide range of dynamics, but rarely exaggerates contrasts by making sudden shifts from one dynamic extreme to the other. Lisitsa has an all-encompassing technique and clearly demonstrates a thorough knowledge of these scores.

Her performance of the Rachmaninov First is among the finest I've heard. Byron Janis and Vladimir Ashkenazy made excellent recordings decades ago, but Lisitsa's account here is at least the most outstanding among recent efforts I've heard. Her tempos are generally brisk, and her sensitive way of capturing Rachmaninov's seemingly ubiquitous melancholy never sounds calculated or artificial, but always natural and alive with feeling. All in all, this Rachmaninov First may go a long way to convince listers that this concerto is better than its relatively modest reputation. It is structurally modeled on the Grieg Piano Concerto, which was in turn modeled on the Schumann. Rachmaninov was a great admirer of the Grieg concerto and when you listen to that work and then to the Rachmaninov First, you notice the similarity of structure, especially in the first movements. But where the Grieg is chipper and upbeat, the Rachmaninov is melancholy, at least until the finale. At any rate this is a performance to savor.

What is even better is Lisitsa's Rachmaninov Second. In fact, this may be the finest performance in the set, and perhaps among the finest ever made of the concerto. Lisitsa again has brisk tempos, but nothing here ever sounds rushed: she, unlike more than a few pianists, realizes that Rachmaninov isn't Bruckner, and that his flowing lyricism was filled with passion and longing and often needed animation and a sense of tension and restiveness to succeed. She gives the music those qualities and more. The second movement, which can often fall flat despite its many beautiful moments, comes across so convincingly here as to make you wonder if the music could ever sound better in another performance. The outer movements are just as effective: the opening panel is filled with drama and passion, and the fast sections in the finale sizzle brilliantly, while the famous alternate theme, played quite slowly here, soars with a mesmerizing glow. For once this theme sounds fresh and not like a signature moment from an overplayed warhorse. Some of the credit here must go to conductor Michael Francis, but I'll have more to say about him later. The numerous great recordings of the Second include efforts by Rubinstein, Glemser, Janis, Cliburn, Ashkenazy and countless others, but this one by Lisitsa, I believe, would now be my first choice.

Lisitsa's Third is at times sort of breezy and light in its fast tempos and often softer passage work. Still, it is an imposing effort for its wealth of detail from the orchestra and the poetic character of her playing of the lyrical and slower music. The opening theme is very brisk – the tempo marking is Allegro ma non tanto, which many pianists play as a moderato. The alternate theme is delivered with a lovely lyrical flow and the development is stormy, powerful and leaves you breathless in its headlong sense. Lisitsa delivers an intense and passionate account of the Ossia cadenza, the bigger and larger of the two in the score and the one most pianists play today. The second movement finds Lisitsa ratcheting up the emotional pitch to capture the full-blown Romanticism of the main theme. The finale is riveting: the outer sections are driven and intense but always convey that heroic sense of the main theme. She brings out much detail too and again delivers the more tender music in the middle section with a true poet's voice. The buildup near the end is powerful and filled with cliff-hanger suspense, and the climax, with that evolving theme taking final shape and rising to the heavens, is truly spellbinding. The coda is pure excitement. In many ways, Lisitsa's approach to this concerto resembles that of Byron Janis who recorded the work twice, with Munch (RCA) and Doráti (Mercury). Both Janis and Lisitsa favor brisk tempos, though Lisitsa is a bit faster. Cliburn, Mogilevsky, Horowitz (with either Coates or Reiner, not his effort with Ormandy) were very good, but Bernd Glemser, who also recorded the work twice (both for Naxos), is excellent in this work as well, especially in his account with Antoni Wit. Glemser may be the most compelling pianist in the Third, though the thrilling Lisitsa can hardly be dismissed and makes a compelling alternative.

Lisitsa's Fourth is splendid, probably on the same artisitc level as her Second. She makes a strong case for this still underrated but flawed work. Lisitsa's first movement captures the considerable range of emotions here, from the happy grandeur of the main theme and exotic longing of the alternate theme to the peaceful epiphany that comes when the strings meltingly restate the opening melody near the end. Lisitsa is thoroughly convincing in the second movement as well, which is no small feat in light of the main theme's similarity to Three Blind Mice, no doubt a coincidence, but a somewhat embarrassing one. The finale is exciting and filled with drama: listen to Lisitsa's buildup just after the middle section to experience a real roller-coaster ride, as the music seems to be spinning delightfully out of control. Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Earl Wild also made fine recordings of this work, but I'll take Lisitsa.

The Paganini Rhapsody is another success, as Lisitsa captures the wide-ranging colors of the work with a deft sense for its mixture of chipper busyness, demonic doings, and heartfelt Romantic outpourings. The eighth, ninth and tenth variations rarely have sounded so dark and threatening – you may want to run and hide! You'll be soothed, however, by the consoling character of the twelfth variation, and when you hear the famous eighteenth, wherein Lisitsa enlivens the ecstatic beauty with more muscular dynamics than is customary, you'll enjoy this music in a brighter, more optimistic light. The demonic buildup in the twenty-second variation is played with a threatening urgency that resolves deftly in that Rachmaninovian haze of swirls and then in triumph, at least momentary triumph. The closing variation, with its recall of the Dies Irae theme, is colorful, powerful, and right on target. There've been many great performances of the Rhapsody by such pianists as Ashkenazy, Rubinstein, Cecile Ousset, Elisso Bolkvadze, and others, but this one by Lisitsa is competitive with the best.

The sound reproduction in all works is excellent, but more importantly, the orchestra plays fabulously throughout the cycle, not least because of the fine direction by Michael Francis. He phrases the music so intelligently, brings out many often buried but meaningful details, and gets a powerful and balanced sound from the orchestra. He consistently imparts a spirited sense to the music, and you get the feeling he fully understands each score in the set. He is obviously a talent to watch.

So after Lisitsa's great success with Rachmaninov, what recording will be next for her? If I were an executive at Decca, I would be interested in her recording the Prokofiev concertos. Her YouTube postings of the Prokofiev 7th sonata suggest she has a real grasp of that composer's highly individual expressive manner, as well. But who knows what's ahead? With such a strong artistic and commercial success as this, you know that there will be plenty more coming from her in the future.

Copyright © 2013, Robert Cummings