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Rachmaninov goes to Hollywood
on 6 November 2009
What a furore this recording has caused; reviews range from the adulatory to brutally critical. Michael F has made some telling points, and perhaps I may add my judgement.
The very slow opening of the concerto is a precursor of what is to come, a very romanticised view of the work. Lang Lang evidently has strong views on the emotional content of the music, and attempts to wring every last ounce from it. Gergiev backs him all the way. In doing so, much of the fire and bite in this work is lost. There are moments of great beauty, and flashes of brilliance in some faster, louder sections, but large sections sound subdued and torpid. There is no gainsaying Lang's technique and one can admire much in that department (including in the opening chords, which he doesn't arpeggiate, as some find it necessary to do). But what of the composer? To misquote Star Trek's Scottie, 'It's Rachmaninov, Jim, but not as we know it'.
The Rhapsody sits more comfortably with me - after all, Lang Lang's style so far could have been described as rhapsodic with some justification. As in the concerto, he doesn't manage the 'cut and thrust' with the orchestra as well as some, but that may be exacerbated by the recording.
I would not criticise the piano sound greatly but it is certainly balanced to the fore and more closely miked than the orchestra. Whether the Mariinsky strings have decided to follow Rachmaninov to America and adopt the US style, or the recording has been given the Hollywood treatment, the overall effect is very plush, smooth and glossy. There is some beautiful playing, but all is wrapped up in a cloying veil behind the piano. Nevertheless, balance in the orchestra, frequency and dynamic range, and ambience, are all more than acceptable. The rear channels only draw attention to themselves in louder passages, where they add to the impression of hall ambience.
I could live with the Rhapsody as long as I could also sample other recordings, but I'm not fully convinced by the concerto. Its okay for a Brief Encounter, a smoochy one-night stand, but not one to love, forsaking all others, for ever.