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Hyperion Records

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Photo of Sergei Rachmaninov.
Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library
Track(s) taken from CDA67501/2
Recording details: May 2004
Eugene McDermott Concert Hall, Morton H Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, USA
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Jeff Mee
Release date: October 2004
Total duration: 23 minutes 31 seconds

'Carefully considered interpretations despatched with consummate musicianship and virtuosity, and using as their inspiration Rachmaninov's own recordings' (The Mail on Sunday)

'Hough. Litton. Rachmaninov concertos. Hyperion. Already a mouth-watering prospect, is it not? So, like the old Fry's Five Boys chocolate advert, does Anticipation match Realisation in these five much recorded confections? The answer is 'yes' on almost every level' (Gramophone)

'Overall, these live concert recordings stand out in a field jam-packed with first-rate Rachmaninov concerto cycles' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This is fin-de-siècle musical romance moulded with perception, and Hough himself is on magnificent form … Hough's set takes the palm as the pre-eminent digital edition of the Rachmaninov piano concertos' (The Independent)

'The freshness and joy in rediscovering well-worn masterpieces are everywhere in evidence in Hough's playing … If you think you have heard these pieces once too often, this is the recording to help you rediscover their intimacies and their emotional sweep' (The Daily Telegraph)

'What Hough has come up with is much fleeter and leaner than the overripe romantic effects usually lavished on these concertos … he keeps the music on the move, carefully regulating its ebb and flow, so that Rachmaninov’s melodies float above the harmonic feints and sidesteps … As fine as anything Hough has done on disc to date' (The Guardian)

'Hough shares with Rachmaninov a precision, a rhythmic energy, a quite beautiful singing tone and—perhaps most important in these dense textures—an unerring clarity … A superb achievement, and that's all that needs to be said' (International Record Review)

'Hough's melodic subtlety is well matched by conductor Andrew Litton, and even Rachmaninophobes will be won over by their Paganini Rhapsody' (The Independent on Sunday)

'Stephen Hough is a pianist of immense finesse, who is incapable of playing a vulgar or exaggerated note. And he has a steely technique, secure enough to carry him through four live recordings—which these are—with barely a slip … this is a wonderful release … Hough and Litton are more than scholars: they make living, flaming music from the ebbing and flowing speeds, the soloist's improvisatory airs, or the strings' willingness to revive the old portamento slide. The waves of energy at the finale's end are very exciting: no wonder the Dallas audience break out in cheers' (The Times)

'These are exhilarating performances, freshly conceived and texturally pristine … With such committed advocacy and technical bravura, Hough's interpretations demand to be heard' (The Sunday Times)

'These are outstanding performances. The recordings capture the excitement of the live concerts, including applause at the end of the concertos but there's very little audience noise and the sound is thrilling and immediate. This is a release that's bound to win all the awards' (Classic FM Magazine)

'An electrifying double-disc set' (The Scotsman)

'These rank among the most illuminating—and most compelling—performances in the catalog. Whether you're a Rachmaninov addict looking for fresh perspectives on the music or a neophyte looking for the cycle in up-to-date sound, Hough and Litton can be recommended without hesitation' (Fanfare, USA)

'An exciting new Rachmaninov set that's definitely not to be missed' (HMV Choice)

'Stephen Hough and Andrew Litton cut a swathe through the decades-long undergrowth of bad tradition, revealing leaner, more potent works in the process … A terrific achievement' (The Evening Standard)

'The spark of these live performances has survived inevitable patching sessions to place Stephen Hough's complete account of Rachmaninov's works for piano and orchestra into the top flight' (Music Week)

'This is the best set of Rachmaninov Piano Concertos ever recorded. You have no idea how hard I worked not to come to this conclusion, knowing full well just how skeptically such a claim is likely to be received. I compared Stephen Hough to multiple Ashkenazy renditions, to Earl Wild, to Zoltan Kocsis, to Argerich, Rubinstein, Richter, Rodriguez, and Horowitz. I ploughed through several obscure Russian recordings, two cycles on Naxos, and a slew of EMIs. I re-auditioned Pletnev and sampled two separate remasterings of Rachmaninov's own performances. I listened with scores, then waited a few days, and then tried again without them. I played these discs to colleagues, to friends, and to people whose musical judgment I trust as much if not more than my own. But the conclusion was inescapable: there never has been a complete cycle at this level of consistent excellence. There's no doubt about it' (ClassicsToday.com)

Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op 43
composer
1934

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This recording is not available for download

Other recordings available for download
Yakov Zak (piano), USSR State Symphony Orchestra, Kyrill Kondrashin (conductor)
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
For all Rachmaninov’s struggles with the structure of the Fourth Concerto, its composition at least reminded him what it felt like to be creative. 1928 saw the publication of his Three Russian Songs for choir and orchestra and in 1931 he composed the solo piano work generally known as the Corelli Variations, although its theme is one that Corelli himself had merely borrowed from the stock-in-trade of Baroque techniques. The Corelli Variations also drew their share of critical flak, and Rachmaninov himself had doubts about their merit, routinely omitting a number of variations each time he played them, according to the amount of coughing in the audience (as he wryly observed to Medtner). But they form another significant precedent for his next major work, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, composed in 1934 at his then recently purchased lakeside villa near Lucerne. The Rhapsody takes another commonplace idea from musical history and plays more or less serious games with it. And although the game-playing aspect is by no means the only fascinating feature of this work, its more general significance is enormous. It enabled Rachmaninov to be confident in his creative vitality, in that he could now return to the musical language he had left behind nearly twenty years previously, without being constrained by its associations with grandiloquent emotionalism. In effect he could now step outside his own musical persona and let it assume all sorts of roles, from old-fashioned poetic confession to a smart urbanity no more than a whisker away from Gershwin.

The theme itself comes from the last of Paganini’s Twenty-four Caprices Op 1 for solo violin. This unobtrusive yet wonderfully suggestive pattern of flicking upbeat motifs had already captured the imagination of Liszt and Brahms, and it would continue to inspire composers after Rachmaninov, as diverse as Witold Lutosl/awski and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Rachmaninov’s first game is to place the theme – on the strings with the piano picking out salient notes – after the first variation. And that initial ‘variation’ – on pizzicato strings following a general clearing of throats for orchestra and piano – is itself already something of a game, since it makes a pun with the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (which likewise introduces a skeletal version before the theme itself). Now that the work is properly under way, Variations ii to vi start to split the elements of the theme apart and to recombine them into new musical personalities. The pauses and rhetorical flourishes for the piano in Variation vi herald a change of tempo and tone. Next the piano gravely intones the head-motif of the Dies irae – the medieval ‘Day or Wrath’ plainchant from the Mass for the Dead – while the orchestra accompanies with the opening motif of the Paganini theme. The Dies irae was a favourite of Rachmaninov’s, and its apocalyptic associations are by no means irrelevant even here. Still, the combination of ideas is a kind of musical game, and one that will be played out later in the Rhapsody.

But not immediately. In Variation viii the piano reinstates the fast opening tempo and leads off with determined staccato chords. This is another musical pun – an in-joke even. The motif is still Paganini’s, but the shape and gesture are taken straight from Glazunov’s Sixth Symphony, which the twenty-three-year-old Rachmaninov had arranged for two pianos. The piano and orchestra’s confrontational chords continue to accumulate, until the Dies irae bursts through again on the piano’s low octaves in Variation x. Another general pause ensues, and the piano’s scale and arpeggio flourishes in Variation xi herald a new slow phase. Variation xii is in the tempo of a minuet, with the Dies irae motif once again more to the fore than the Paganini theme.

Back in the main Allegro tempo, Variations xiii to xv form a kind of scherzo, the last of the three variations being initially for piano alone. Variations xvi and xvii become ever more shadowy, continuing the sequence of key-changes that began with No xiv and setting the stage for the famous Variation xviii. This glorious lyrical outpouring, based on an inversion of Paganini’s main motif (a sublime piece of game-playing this!), was already a legend in its composer’s lifetime, at least as early as 1939 when Fokine choreographed a ballet to the Rhapsody and – apparently with Rachmaninov’s collaboration – reintroduced the big tune as an apotheosis at the end of the work.

The last six variations make a dazzling finale, with piano, orchestra and composer going through increasingly virtuoso paces, and Rachmaninov’s last game-like gesture comes with the throwaway final cadence. In another sense, the very last of Rachmaninov’s games is actually the title he eventually settled on, having considered and rejected the perfectly appropriate ‘Symphonic Variations’ and the less happy ‘Fantasia’. For this Rhapsody is one of the most tautly constructed, least rhapsodic works he ever composed, and at the same time one of the most disciplined and inventive (not to mention thrilling and sensuously beautiful) sets of variations ever composed.

from notes by David Fanning © 2004


Other albums featuring this work
'Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos' (APR6005)
Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos
MP3 £7.99FLAC £7.99ALAC £7.99 APR6005  for the price of 1 — Download only  
'Rachmaninov: The Piano Concertos' (SACDA67501/2)
Rachmaninov: The Piano Concertos
This album is not yet available for download SACDA67501/2  2CDs Super-Audio CD — Deleted  

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