Let's get right off the bat to the down side of this otherwise superb set of recordings: audience noise. Now thank goodness this audience is very quiet during the progress of these performances, recorded live in the Meyerson Center in Dallas, USA; but as the dying echoes of each final chord in each of the first four piano concertos washes back from the walls, a huge crash of applause falls upon the ears like a very cold, and hard, icy avalanche. Only the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was recorded without an audience, and thus mercifully, the rhapsody is blessedly free of this dreadful end to some of the very best Rachmaninoff playing ever committed to discs.
Yes, the first time you play these discs (in very clear and wide-frequency super audio sound, by the way), the applause offers up that added live concert frisson of the Meyerson audience being electrified by performances which would deserve every minute of sustained and raucous applause that any audience anywhere might care to offer up in appreciation. After that first time around, however, you simply wish more and more and more, to exile that audience to any Siberia, any far and distant and life threatening tundra available, just so long as it's palm-smacking look-at-us-now cacophony is no longer shattering against the walls of your listening room like demolition for a new Walmart down the block. Super audio's sonic power and refinement, on offer in multiple surround channels, only makes these intrusive applause endings that much more noisome. If you turn up the system, as I did, to more fully immerse yourself in each of the passing fine nuances as well as the entirely apt forward sweep of these performances, you will only be more painfully and frustratingly punished at the end of each work.
So, we have a possible major, major, major problem in this set, thanks to this audience at the end, every end, every piano concerto, one through four.
Otherwise these performances stand as pillars of fresh, committed, and thoroughly rewarding music-making. The pianist Stephen Hough, of course, is no stranger to worthwhile musicianship. A while back he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Prize, and this survey of the Rachmaninoff piano concertos only continues the genius that the prize is intended to support. The Dallas Symphony is led by Andrew Litton, their current music director. The orchestra members, the conductor, and the pianist are one with the sweep and enormous melody which the composer has written into these scores. Though he showcases piano writing, leaving few passages when the pianist in his concertos is entirely silent for long; Rachmaninoff writes many little duets ... so deft, so tricky to put together and still make musical sense, both close and large .... throughout each movement, where the keyboard is companioned by woodwinds, or strings or brass. Keeping the fabric balanced is not as easy as it may appear from the ease with which the Dallas orchestra departments play; and people need to highlight and fade as quickly as the music evolves and shifts, moving on. As a set this one goes to the prime shelf where current interests are held. The only other sets to rise this high musically so far are the composer's own ... beautifully remastered in the Naxos budget editions; and the deleted complete set by Vladimir Ashkenazy with Bernard Haitink leading the Philharmonia (London) and the Concertgebouw; and the Peter Rosl and Kurt Sanderling set with the outstanding Berlin Symphony.
Individually, other performances of single concertos also seem to belong on this most highly esteemed Rachmaninoff shelf. In the first concerto, Vardan Mamikonian gives a stunning performance, supported by the Frankfort Radio Orchestra led by David Stahl. The same disc includes an equally intense performance of the Liszt first piano concerto. In the second concerto, I have long cherished Russian pianist Yevgeny Kissin, with Valergy Gergiev leading the London Symphony on BMG. Their pacing is exemplary, and I think this disc of the second concerto is one of the best things Kissin has given us so far.
The third concerto has been recorded by so many very good players that it is more difficult to select the most musically outstanding single versions. In addition to the other complete sets mentioned, I would perhaps add a deleted BMG-RCA recording with Ashkenazy partnered by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. Their unaminity of musical purpose lights fire in each and every bar, putting to shame the familiar saw that Ormandy could only make beautiful music that stayed on the surface of the many works he recorded over a long career. Ashkenazy has recorded lots of Rachmaninoff, too, in a long career; and this deleted disc of the third concerto is among the peaks in his great catalogue. Arkady Volodos is at least the equal of the old, famous Horowitz recording, and the super audio sound is very high quality.
No one who loves the fourth concerto will be willing to part with the famed Michelangeli recording, now available in a Great Performances EMI edition. In my opinion the sole equal of the Rhapsody would be the Pletnev one on Virgin EMI, with Libor Pesek leading the Philharmonia.
To finish the lot, I strongly recommend the ORIGINAL versions of the first and fourth concertos, with Ashkenazy leading the Helsinki Philharmonic, and Alexander Ghindin doing a smash-up, young man's reading of both concertos. After listening to the original versions, you may agree with me that the composer tightened up each work, at the cost of losing some very lovely music. Highly recommended, five stars for performance. Hate the audience reaction in all four concertos, just hate it, no stars. Only a act of sheer willful determination keeps their applause in the airtight container of historical interest, where surely their applause belongs.