Dream team together on record – Trpčeski, Petrenko and Rachmaninov

RACHMANINOV – Piano Concertos 1-4 / Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini

Simon Trpčeski (piano)

Vasily Petrenko (conductor)

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Avie Records

AV2191 (Concertos 1, 4 / Paganini Rhapsody)

AV2192 (Concertos 2, 3)

Avie Records and its NZ distributor Ode Records will have pleased Wellington concertgoers enormously with a recent pair of CD recordings (available separately) featuring pianist Simon Trpčeski and conductor Vasily Petrenko in the music of Rachmaninov – all four Piano Concertos and the Rhapsody on Theme of Paganini. Of course, both Simon Trpčeski and Vasily Petrenko have been recent guest artists with the NZSO, though not performing together – Trpčeski gave us Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, and Petrenko conducted the orchestra in a recent concert featuring Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto, with Michael Houstoun as soloist. So the CDs represent a “coming-together” of different strands of impulse from these concerts, pianist, conductor and composer. While the absolute stand-out performance of the set is that of the Fourth Concerto, these musicians bring plenty of feeling and enviable skills to each of the works on the two discs, if not quite emulating the performance-intensity levels which I enjoyed at each of the concerts I attended.

Trpčeski and Petrenko approach the First Concerto as though they’re making no allowances for its status as a relatively youthful work (Rachmaninov was 18 when the concerto was completed, in 1892, though he revised the work extensively in 1917, expressing some latter-day astonishment at the Concerto’s “youthful pretensions”). In fact Rachmaninov soon realized he couldn’t remain in Russia with the Communists in control, and therefore had to face the prospect of earning a living in exile as a virtuoso pianist – so reworking his concerto’s “youthful pretensions” gave him an extra piece to add to his projected concert repertoire.

Right from the start, Trpčeski and Petrenko stress the work’s big-boned contrasts – those boldly stated flourishes from orchestra and soloist at the beginning have real “bite”, throwing into bold relief both the liquid flow of the opening theme, and the rapid scherzando-like passages which follow. Trpčeski‘s playing has plenty of flint-like brilliance, if not as volatile and alchemic as the composer’s on his recording (but nobody else’s is!), and Petrenko conjures from his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic players gloriously Russian-sounding tones, rich and resplendent in one episode, elfin and volatile in the next, heart-rending and melancholic in a third. One senses, too, a piano-and-orchestra partnership of equals, with all of the creative interactions and tensions that such a relationship implies.

I liked Trpčeski‘s Scriabin-like fantasizing on the slow movement’s first page, the playing creating sounds borne upon the air, with Petrenko encouraging his players to evolve the sounds almost by osmosis, allowing the soloist to climb through the textures with his figurations. And scenes of Imperial Russia come to mind as the music’s rhythmic trajectories kick in with the clipped horses’ hooves, the jingling harnesses on the sleigh and the wind-flurried snow-flakes skirling as the string sing a soulful melody. Only in the finale did I feel Trpčeski‘s playing a trifle under-voltaged in places, lacking some of the electricity of Stephen Hough’s blistering fingerwork on a rival Hyperion set of the concertos (Hyperion CDA 67501/2). Petrenko’s is a darker orchestral sound for Trpčeski than Andrew Litton’s is for Hough, though the romance of the second subject group is beautifully realized on the newer recording, the canonic dialoging between instruments as tenderly lyrical as any. Finally, some whiplash-like irruptions of energy from the orchestra galvanize the soloist as the music races to its brilliant conclusion.

After the resplendent performance I heard Petrenko conduct of the Fourth Concerto with Michael Houstoun and the NZSO, I was surprised and fascinated to encounter a somewhat leaner orchestral sound from the Liverpool Orchestra as recorded by Avie – what remnants of romantic sweep Rachmaninov allowed to remain in his composer-armoury by this stage of his creative career were certainly brought out full-bloodedly in Wellington, but seem less in evidence on record. Instead, Petrenko keeps things lean and tightly-focused in Liverpool, details very much to the fore, the result being a steady steam of interactive dialoguing between orchestra and soloist, the attention on the musical thoughts and ideas rather than any guide’s exposition of it. It did make the big moments in which the soloist did dominate more telling, such as the archway of the big central climax, with its gorgeously bluesy Gershwin-like tune on the strings, though the subsequent mocking laughter of the brasses resonated all the more in such a climate of restraint. Trpčeski‘s playing throughout is of a piece with the orchestra’s, focused and flexible, taking a partnership role as often as seeking to dominate. The result is a strongly-balanced exposition of the music, the sensitivity of Trpčeski‘s dialoging with the winds in the melancholic epilogue to that big middle section a clue to the stature of this performance as a powerfully expressive partnership of equals.

Pianist, conductor and orchestra build the haunting, melancholic tread of the slow movement towards a climax whose pain and sorrow, though momentary, pierce the heart of the listener, as much for the heartbreak of the subsequent bars as for the shock of the sudden onslaught. As for the finale, again Trpčeski‘s playing may yield points to Stephen Hough’s performance in sheer vertiginous brilliance, but here it’s the interplay with Petrenko’s ever-responsive Liverpool players that catches the ear again and again. Critics who damned this music at its premiere on the grounds of Rachmaninov’s “old-fashioned” style must have made up their minds about the work before they even heard a note – for this is a composer who, despite his own distaste for the avant-garde and his omni-present inner resonances of Imperial Russia, was certainly listening to what was happening around him. Bartok, Stravinsky, Gershwin and Ravel are all there at the finale’s feast, even if the fare remains bitter to the taste, flavoured to the end with the composer’s own anguish in exile from his beloved native land. Rachmaninov’s trauma at the work’s reception by the critics was such that he cut the Concerto heavily, rewriting some passages and (ironically) lessening the work’s “new look” aspect – it’s worth tracking down either Alexander Ghindin’s or Yevgeny Sudbin’s recordings of the Concerto’s original version (respectively, on the Ondine and BIS labels) to experience the extent of the composer’s thwarted achievement.

By the time he came to write the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini for piano and orchestra, Rachmaninov had, I feel, come to terms some of the way with his situation. His frequently-expressed grief at his refugee status had become less overt in his music than, perhaps by way of compensation, a delight in brilliantly sardonic, in places almost diabolical accents,  though he would still produce incomparable episodes of melancholic lyricism (his Third Symphony, completed two years after the Rhapsody, is a kind of emotional counterweight in this regard). The Rhapsody was the first work he wrote in a new home, the villa called “Senar”, on the shores of Lake Lucerne. As befits its virtuoso leanings it uses a similar theme to that used by Brahms in HIS “Paganini” Variations, albeit for solo piano. Unlike the hapless Fourth Concerto, the work was an instant success with the public, the composer’s pleasure at this tempered with the worry of having to perform it. Oddly enough, there’s a tenuous New Zealand connection with this work through the famous choreographer Michel Fokine, who wrote to the composer from Auckland in 1939 (Fokine was touring the country with the Covent Garden Russian Ballet at the time) asking permission from Rachmaninov to adapt the work for a ballet to be called “Paganini” – the composer subsequently agreed, and “Paganini” received its first performance at Covent Garden that same year.

Trpčeski and Petrenko play the score, it seems to me, with ears for its structural qualities, rather than its surface brilliances and coruscations. Up to the first appearance of the “Dies Irae” theme (Variation 7 – Meno mosso,a tempo moderato) the music treads steadily, the orchestral colours dark and weighty, the piano having more “glint” than out-and-out brilliance – something of a contrast with Stephen Hough’s more elfin volatilities, matched with a brighter, more effervescent orchestral presence from Andrew Litton and his Dallas Symphony players. Trpčeski is chunkier and earthier, and his accompanying orchestral colours to my ears more Shostakovich-like (a nicely guttural clarinet in Variation 12, having more time, at Petrenko’s tempo, to “colour” its melody). One could hazard the comment that Trpčeski and Petrenko give the music a more Russian-sounding outlook, very like Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tsar Saltan music in the splendidly swaggering Variation 14, though Stephen Hough again finds extra sparkle in the succeeding piano-only Allegro. I like the homage Rachmaninov pays to Prokofiev in Variation 16’s Allegretto (straight out of the latter’s ballet Romeo and Juliet), Andrew Litton encouraging particularly spectral shudders from his strings, while Petrenko’s Liverpudlians are robuster, fuller-bodied phantoms. In the lead-up to the famous Eighteenth Variation, I found myself preferring Hough’s and Litton’s rather more atmospheric Allegretto, more spacious and Gothic, the sostenuto winds almost ghoul-like, not unlike Respighi’s Catacomb phantoms in his Pines of Rome, though honours are pretty even when the big tune comes around (the “Paganini” theme simply inverted and slowed down, can you believe it?).

And so it goes on – Hough and Litton bring out the glitter and volatility of the concluding sequences with more quicksilver than Trpčeski and Petrenko, whose energies have a darker, more elemental quality. But both rides to the finish are madcap ones, risk-taking ventures, with alarming accents and angularities aplenty, as well as passages whose harmonic explorations leave those of the worlds of the Second and Third Concertos far behind. At the beginning of the last variation of all, Trpčeski and Petrenko out-point their rivals in deliciousness, but as the patternings intensify, it’s simply neck-and neck at the finish. Trpčeski throws away the last phrase deadpan, like a good poker-player, while Hough etches it in with just a hint of a raised eyebrow.

Turning to the second of the Avie discs, containing the aforementioned remaining concertos, the listener enters a world filled with multitudes of ghosts of past performances, whose resonances are liable to rise up and haunt and even overwhelm all but the most intrepid and determined new interpreters. Happily Trpčeski and Petrenko are adventurers of that cut and cloth, and the opening paragraph of the C Minor Concerto (No.2) is a strongly-wrought statement of intent, couched in deep, rich tones, and propelled with striding energy. Vasily Petrenko loses no chance to support his pianist with emphatic touches from his players that stress the depth of feeling and purpose of it all – his lower strings, for instance, sing a rich counter-line to Trpčeski‘s simply-voiced second subject melody, echoed beautifully by the oboe shortly afterwards. The musicians tend to make the music’s transitions flow, rather than go for high-contrast changes of tempo and mood  – but the excitement nevertheless builds up impressively towards the movement’s “great moment”, the return of the opening theme on sweeping orchestral strings, the soloist reinforcing the music’s trajectories with a triumphal counter-melody.

The second movement opens enchantingly, strings, Trpčeski‘s piano and the winds taking turns to weave undulating patterns of finely-spun emotion, the music’s ebb and flow and brief irruption of energy easily and naturally brought into being.  After Petrenko’s terse opening to the finale the music expands with explosive energies towards climaxes, furious piano playing initiating steadily growing momentums which the strings-and-piano fugato gathers up and races towards the release of the big tune’s reappearance.The scherzando passage is galvanized by Trpčeski each time he joins the fray, culminating in a spectacular keyboard flourish and a grand and forthright final statement of the tune – glorious!

And so we come to what many people regard as the greatest of all Romantic piano concertos, the “knuckle-breaker”, as pianist Gary Graffmann used to describe it – otherwise known in the business as “Rack 3”. For a time the territory of only the boldest and most fearless of pianists (the likes of Horowitz, Janis, Gilels, Malcuzynski, Lympany and Van Cliburn, as well as New Zealand’s Richard Farrell – but, unaccountably, NOT Sviatoslav Richter), the general rise in technical piano-playing standards (though not in actual musicianship) has seen many more pianists than one could have ever imagined taking the piece on, with, alas, generally unmemorable results – given that the work still remains an enormous challenge, so that anybody who actually attempts the piece really deserves Brownie points for trying.

At first, Trpčeski‘s and Petrenko’s way with the music seems small-scale, their delivery of the opening episode emphasizing the first theme’s beauty while playing down its rhythmic undercurrents.  However, it’s part of the longer view – when the lower strings take up the tune, Trpčeski‘s increasingly insistent accompanying figurations awaken the music’s urgencies. And what a glorious sound Petrenko encourages from his strings, and how subtly both musicians build the music through the first appearance of the concerto’s most memorable melody, shared by the piano and the orchestra, in turn, to the grand, romantic sweep of the moment’s climax.

The central episode again relaxes the tension surrounding the opening tune’s reprise – those underlying energies are kept down by Petrenko, allowing chattering winds to interact with the pianist’s nervous utterances, and only encouraging the music’s pulses to beat with any edge and force when rising out of the ambient detail to match and contour the piano’s combatative intentions – impressive control, but lacking, I thought, that suggestion of abandonment which would have brought out the encounter’s sense of the participants risking all and plunging into the fray. Trpčeski chooses the heavier, more chordal of the two cadenzas Rachmaninov left, and builds up a splendidly majestic weight of tone and fury of purpose. Beautiful wind-playing answers the soloist’s near-exhausted ruminations, and my only real disappointment is that pianist and conductor don’t make something more “charged” of the “bells across the meadow” episode before the opening tune’s final reprise brings the movement to its expectant close.

At the slow movement’s beginning, I’m always reminded of my first recording of this concerto, Byron Janis’s with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony – still memorable for Janis’s coruscating pianism and for Munch’s fervent encouragement of his strings at this point in the work. Petrenko’s players sound just as committed, the dying fall as the strings awaken the piano one of the work’s most expressively full-blooded moments. Trpčeski‘s and Petrenko’s account of the dark waltz-like episode is poised and veiled, as though concealing feelings too candid to fully display, though the strings subsequently stress the underlying heartache just before the finale’s electrifying opening flourishes. Trpčeski is suitably volatile and impulsive, here, and the steady-ish pace adopted for the “galloping horse” motif allows the orchestral tutti more weight and cumulative force. I’ve heard the scherzando episode played more delicately and impishly by other pianists, but Trpčeski brings out its nocturnal aspect nicely, and the lead-in to the great moment of the first movement’s memorable second subject is as charged with emotion by the players as one would want – for me, a definite performance highlight.

Apart from what I thought sounded like a strangely “clipped” reprise of the orchestra’s “galloping horse” motive, the remainder of the concerto gets the utmost romantic treatment, with all the proverbial stops pulled out – Trpčeski‘s pianism has all the weight and brilliance required, and Petrenko draws from his players the full panoply of orchestral splendor, the sounds making handsome amends for those momentary “lean-and-hungry” equestrian impressions. In sum, though I didn’t find the music-making throughout these discs as consistently “electric” as I did in the concert-hall from this pianist and conductor, that’s as much a commentary on the nature of the “live-versus-recorded” music-listening experience. It’s one I’m glad to have had both ways with these truly splendid artists, here together playing such marvellous music.

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