, October 2004
"Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the most paradoxical musicians of the last century.
His best-known compositions, the four piano concertos and "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," were written to show off the technique of a virtuoso. Rachmaninoff was perhaps the most virtuosic pianist of the early 20th century.
Those five works for piano and orchestra were written in a rich - some would say overripe - late-romantic style, reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and other Russian composers of the late 19th century.
As a performer and musical interpreter, however, Rachmaninoff was almost the opposite of a romantic.
He was "a pianist of control" who "carefully avoided exaggeration [and] never went in for mere show," Harold Schonberg wrote in "The Great Pianists." Rachmaninoff's "rhythms had no eccentricities, his ideas were unsentimental, he adhered closely to the printed note" - all qualities more commonly associated with musicians of a classical mind-set.
You can hear this in Rachmaninoff's recordings of other composers' music. Perhaps the most revealing are his collaborations with violinist Fritz Kreisler in sonatas of Beethoven, Schubert and Grieg (Naxos 8110968, an English import, or "Rachmaninoff: The Complete Recordings," RCA Victor 61265, 10 discs).
Kreisler was a romantic, at times undisciplined performer, but these are among his least romantic recordings; he reined in his plush tone and sometimes indulgent phrasing to accommodate the pianist's stern precision.
More subtly revealing are Rachmaninoff's own recordings of his concertos and rhapsody (RCA Victor 61658, two discs), made in the 1920s and 30s with Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.
While the composer is as technically dazzling as any of the virtuosos who've subsequently played these works, his interpretations are propelled less by sweeping romantic expression and dramatic rhetorical gestures than by the music's structural logic and the piano's interplay with the orchestra.
Rachmaninoff played Rachmaninoff as if it were Mozart, as pianist Andre Watts observed last year before he played the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor with the Richmond Symphony.
Watts didn't quite play it as if it were Mozart, but he showed more rhetorical restraint and carried on a deeper collaboration with the orchestra than one normally hears in this work.
The English pianist Stephen Hough displays a similar clarity and unindulgent musicality in his new recordings of the Rachmaninoff concertos and "Paganini Rhapsody" with conductor Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (Hyperion 67501/2, two discs).
Hough, who made an impressive local debut last year at Virginia Commonwealth University, showed in that recital of Chopin, Liszt and Hummel that he's as technically adept as any pianist at work today.
But he's also a thoughtful interpreter, as intent on explicating music as he is on expressing its emotions. Maintaining that measure of restraint, it turns out, makes emotional gestures all the more powerful.
That attitude, which Hough has honed in many rediscoveries of romantic piano music (from Hummel to Saint-Saens on disc, even wider explorations in live performance), makes him a Rachmaninoff interpreter who balances excitement with insight.
Litton, an American conductor who has long specialized in Russian repertory, is an ideal partner for this project, and he has a high-powered and responsive instrument in the Dallas orchestra.
The four concertos were recorded in concerts, the rhapsody without an audience, all at Dallas' Meyerson Symphony Center, a venue that casts a warm sonic glow but also imposes a slightly dry acoustic on the performances."