RACHMANINOFF: Vespers, Op. 37.
St. Petersburg Chamber Choir/Nikolai Korniev, cond.
PENTATONE PTC 5186 027 (M) TT: 49:25 (5 channel)
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RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18. Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43
Werner Haas, pianist; Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orch/Eliahu Inbal
PENTATONE PTC 5186 114 (M) TT: 57:15 (4 channel)
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Rachmaninoff's Vespers is a powerful work that I remember from the remarkable Melodiya recording made in 1965 by the State Russian Choir directed by Alexander Sveshnikov. Originally issued on Angel Melodiya LPs, it later appeared on a Melodiya CD (SUCD 10-00601) unfortunately no longer available. This recording was considered by many to be definitive—and it remains so. The ending of the fifth section, Kiev Chant ("Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart") with its slow descent to that subterranean low B-Flat (more than two octaves below middle C), has never been sung better, surely not so on this new recording with the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir. No information is provided about this group, but surely they sound smallish and, as mentioned earlier, they do not have the powerful low male voices essential for Rachmaninoff's masterpiece. The recording was made at "Elburg, The Netherlands" in December 2002. The unresonant acoustic doesn't sound like a church; this music should have a "'big cathedral" effect, and on this recording it does not. Engineering places the chorus in front. Total playing time of only 49:25 for a CD isn't very good value. Complete texts, in Russian, English, German and French, are provided.

The other Pentatone Rachmaninoff CD is of much greater interest. Pianist Werner Haas had a remarkable career tragically cut short October 11, 1976 when a truck smashed into the pianist's car as he was returning from a concert, somewhat similar to the tragic death of American pianist William Kapell in an airplane crash when returning from a concert tour in 1953. A New York critic referred to Haas as a successor to Gieseking, with whom Haas had studied. His recordings for Philips of Debussy's piano works (available on Philips 438 718 & 438 721) won the covered Grand Prix du Disque, and his Ravel won the Amsterdam Edison Prize. Here are his sterling performances of Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 2 and Paganini Rhapsody recorded September 1974 with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eliahu Inbal. These are broad-scale performances, sensitively played with plenty of pianistic fireworks. The closing bar of the Paganini Rhapsody is perfect in its whimsy—just about the best I've heard. This is one of the RQR (Remastered Quadro Recordings) Pentatone releases, with a broad, natural sound perspective. Bass is rather overstated, and I wish the piano had been a bit more forward, but generally this is satisfying listening.

R.E.B. (July 2003)(NEXT SURROUND REVIEW)