This disc of all Rachmaninov by Helene Grimaud splits just about evenly into two halves - the first devoted to the Second Piano Concerto and the rest to solo pieces.
Orchestra, at its first entrance starting the main theme of the first movement, sounds recessed - corrected by the end of the first long phrase or so. The Philharmonia, under Ashkenazy, once clearly heard, reveals an orchstra that has maintained its depth over a good number of years. Transitions during the Exposition section to follow appear unduly choppy. Grimaud, while revealing secure technique and decent feel for the idiom, has a habit of surging forward with the line here a couple of times, and also at the beginning of the cadenza in the Adagio sostenuto, regardless of what may follow. The piano, again, is somehow brought forward very quickly and briefly by the mikes for the last chord or two of a big stretto before the introduction of the second theme, and similar happens a couple of other times during this movement. Most of the remainder of the first movement, with fine sound quality when not tweaked with, goes by very well, if only conventionally so.
The Adagio is played in a much-to-be-expected subdued manner, with a good feeling for color from both orchestra and soloist and the right amount of sweep to the coda section. The finale starts off in fine well-sprung rhythm from the orchestra and bravura from the soloist, but come the Development section, Grimaud, who has somewhat mechanically played the trills at the quiet close of the Exposition, charging forward, clips, or enters the Development section a good half a beat early. Ensemble problems plague several tricky moments throughout. The affirmative, yet very loud tutti by the orchestra at the end of this section seems unnaturally abetted by one or two folks at the control board. The return of the romantic second theme is again handled conventionally, but possibly for bravura effect, scherzando triplets get clipped, especially insipid when doubled by flutes, yet only a momentary distraction up to the final, climactic passages to both the finale and the entire concerto, the big theme within rendered in its usual byzantine gold and bronze.
The G-Sharp Minor prelude from the close of the opus 32 collection of twelve, serves as segue between concerto and several of the opus 33 etudes-tableaux and Corelli Varations to follow. The feeling for atmosphere and color is fine for the prelude, but Grimaud's playing gets a bit weighed down by chronic anticipation of the downbeat, and other minute hesitations along the same lines - device used again to heigthen the dramatic effect of strings of repeated chords in the closing C-sharp Minor etude-tableaux from Opus 33, but undercut by heavy chords, for all the aggressive handling of them, are not heard in their full weight or resonance. Such feeling for chords and octaves crudely interrupts the plaintive trio section of the first etude-tableaux, which closes with light tolling of bells in the upper right hand. Grimaud's gilding of this passage, which negates its intended effect, is ironically a lesson in more-is-less, less-is-more. The second etude-tableaux on the disc has the right feeling for the lyric line, but pushed a little too hard in the accompaniment to be allowed its full flower.
Grimaud's playing for most of the solo pieces, and especially the Corelli Variations reveals more of her true personality than her playing in the concerto. Her anti-romantic sensibilities, turned mystic and postmodern by now to remain in step with current fashion, among the current echelon of pianists championing the heavily tried and true Romantic repertoire, come quickly to the fore.
Feeling for pulsation, line (especially in the slow, reflective D-Flat Major variations and intermezzo that precedes them) and color is weak in the Corelli Variations. The austerity and even strangeness of this music is made more remarkable from the pianist who inculcates inner contrast between the recidivist qualities (even if drained of life) of this music and modernist, instead of bleaching out so much of this contrast. Grimaud takes the modernism of the piece doctrinaire and as entirely her calling card, making her interpretation of the variations heavily two-dimensional. Even heavy chords are frequently shortened of their full note value and played in strict rhythm, regardless of harmonic change through them or underneath.
Again, the qualities that I rue about this kind of playing should not disappoint Grimaud fans, and even the slightly higher endorsement I make of this disc may be so much so at the outset to worry a few. Outside of those people, the combination of popular concerto and thirty-minute sampling of solo repertoire will seem cumbersome to the average collector. Those who have Ashkenazy, with Kondrashin for the Second or Haitink for the set of four, for the concerti, or for solo repertoire (etudes, variations especially fine), are in good hands.