RACHMANINOFF: Preludes Op. 23 Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 10; Op. 3 No. 2; Op. 32 Nos. 2, 12; Siren, Op. 2 No. 5; Margaritki, Op. 38 No. 3; Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 (rev. 1931). RIMSKY-KORSAKOV-RACHMANINOFF: Flight of the Bumblebee. TCHAIKOVSKY-RACHMANINOFF: Lullaby. MENDELSSOHN-RACHMANINOFF: Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Simon Trpeski, pianist
EMI CLASSICS 57943 (F) (DDD) TT: 69:22
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RACHMANINOFF: Moments Musicaux, Op. 16. Morceaux de fantasie, Op. 3. Fragments (1917). Prelude, Op. posth (1917). Zdes' khorosho, Op. 21 No. 7. Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14 (trans. Kocsis)
Vladimir Ashkenazy, pianist
DECCA B0004200 (F) (DDD) TT: 62:43
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RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 1 in F# minor, Op. 1. Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30.
Nikolai Lugansky, pianist; City of Birmingham Symphony Orch/Sakari Oramo, cond.
WARNER CLASSICS 47941 (F) (DDD) TT: 68:00
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RACHMANINOFF: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43. Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22.
Nikolai Lugansky, pianist; City of Birmingham Symphony Orch/Sakari Oramo, cond.
WARNER CLASSICS 60613 (F) (DDD) TT: 73:34

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RACHMANINOFF: Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36. CHOPIN: Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35. Berceuse in D flat, Op. 52. Barcarolle in F#, Op. 60.
Hélène Grimaud, pianist
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON B0004048 (F) (DDD) TT: 62:07
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RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43.
Lang Lang, pianist; Marinsky Theatre Orch/Valery Gergiev, cond.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON B 0003902 (F) (DDD) TT: 60:32

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Five winners and one loser. Simon Trpceski won the London Piano Competition in 2000 and since then has concertized in Europe, Australia, Asia, England and the United States. Born in Macedonia in 1979, his extraordinary gifts were recognized when he won the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's Young Artist Award. His debut EMI recording of Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Prokofiev and Stravinsky won Gramophone magazine's Debut Album Award (575202), and for good reason. This CD of varied Rachmaninoff works and transcriptions is a brilliant achievement, committed to the scores, played with the greatest of ease, even the knuckle-breaking Mendelssohn Scherzo. Obviously Trpceski (pronounced trip-cheski) is a major figure on the international concert scene. Nikolai Lugansky is another meteoric star on today's pianistic scene. The son of two Russian scientists, he won a series of major prizes including, in 1994, the International Tchaikovsky Competition. He's appeared with many major orchestras and conductors, and frequently gives recitals with violinist Vadim Repin. All of his recordings thus far have won major prizes. His Rachmaninoff performances on these two CDs are among the finest you'll hear, with vivid support from Oramo and the City of Birmingham Orchestra. Lugansky even manages to make Rachmaninoff's Corelli and Chopin variations (two of the composer's least interesting works) sound convincing. Lugansky's disc of Rachmaninoff's Second and Fourth concertos has been announced for release, and I look forward to hearing them.

Hélène Grimaud's latest disk is an inspired coupling of the second sonatas of Chopin and Rachmaninoff. For the latter, she convincingly plays her own version based on Rachmaninoff's 1931 revision. Resplendent performances of Chopin's Berceuse and Barcarolle complete the CD, which easily could have included several other works. Vladimir Ashkenazy, considered by many to be a specialist in Rachmaninoff, plays many of the shorter works most of which he has not recorded before. I've always considered his recordings of the concertos somewhat overrated, including his three versions of Concerto No. 3, the first from1963 with Anatole Fistoulari and the LSO, the second in 1970 with the same orchestra directed by André Previn, the third in 1986 with Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw. While beautifully played, there is little of the coruscating virtuosity that is a major part of this work. However, in these solo works Ashkenazy excells. Quality of reproduction is well-balanced and full-range.

And now we come to the loser. After hearing the glories of Rachmaninoff on the above recordings we come down many notches to Lang Lang's performance of the Concerto No. 2 and Paganini Rhapsody. This misguided performance of the Concerto No. 2 rather reminds me of Ivo Pogorelich's equally inappropriate interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1 issued many years ago ton DGG. How Pogorelich was able to secure Claudio Abbado to go along with his warped concept of the concerto is a mystery. On this new "live" recording was made in July 2004 in Martti Talvela Hall in Finland, Valery Gergiev is quoted as saying he is not hung up on a performance being "'clinically precise," but wants it to be "naturally musical, naturally beautiful."—whatever that means. Gergiev recorded this concerto with Evgeny Kissen in 1988, a performance that times in at about 35 minutes, about 90 seconds faster than Lang Lang's ill-conceived reading, but the Kissin is an expansive, exciting, and dramatic reading, with forward momentum that Lang Lang doesn't provide. Sviatoslav Richter's 1960 recording is about 35 minutes, Artur Rubinstein's 1956 recording is about 33. The composer's 1924 recording is 30:19; his 1929 recording is 31:33, and Earl Wild's magnificent 1965 recording is just about fastest of all: 30:23 (the fastest of all is Gyorgy Sandor's '40's Columbia recording with Rodzinsky/NYP—less than 29 minutes!). All of these are are worthy of attention. Lang Lang states in CD notes he is conscious of the example set by the composer's own recordings—but seems to have learned little through the process. Lang Lang's perverse, stultifyingly slow treatment of the opening of the concerto (eight majestic solo piano chords each followed by a low F) attracts the wrong kind of attention. Throughout the concerto he employs rubato excessively and in mincing fashion. And the one place his treatment might have been effective (the lush chords before the concluding bars of the second movement) are played prosaically. The Paganini Rhapsody fares a bit better, but there are many, many other recordings much superior to this. DGG's live recording is inside the piano; perhaps the SACD surround version will improve on the balance, but I cannot imagine that anyone, except the most devoted Lang Lang fans, would wish to hear this recording .A plus is that we don't have to watch the pianist's phoney histrionics and swooning at the keyboard.

R.E.B. (April 2005)