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Reviews: Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos (complete) - Stephen Hough

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Reviews: 8

Review by krisjan November 11, 2004 (6 of 6 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
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Review by thepilot November 20, 2004 (4 of 7 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
Great recordings and performances (especially the live ones). The Dallas SO has always been a splendid orchestra and here they play like angels, while Litton proves once again, that he is a true "Rachmaninov conductor" that really probes the depths of these wonderful works. Hough plays fantastically and Hyperion provide really splendid, flawless DSD mch recordings. What more could you ask? A definitive Rachmaninov piano concertos collection for the SACD age.

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Review by nickc March 8, 2005 (12 of 16 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
You don't know how much I didn't want to report my feelings on these discs this way, but I must report what I feel: magnificent performances emasculated by a low-level and distant recording. This is Rachmaninov for heaven's sake - it could have been Debussy the way the strings sound! If you're not going to present an orchestra with hearts unashamedly on their sleeves in this of all repertoires what's the point? I’m sure the Dallas Symphony played their hearts out but the strings especially have had a disservice done to them.
Hough is absolutely magnificent, apocalyptic I even called it in my earlier post, but there are even problems with how he is presented. For some reason it is a 4.0 not 5.0 recording resulting in the dreaded 20 foot wide piano syndrome. I'm generally not dogmatic on this point but for concertos of all pieces put the soloist in the centre surrounded by the orchestra, just like they are in real life.
I'll discuss the performances now, which, as I have said, are totally awe-inspiring, even though I don't always agree with some of the interpretative choices. I felt Ashkenazy brought even greater weight to the 1st. movement cadenza in No.1, but once again it could be the fault of the recording. One thing I disagreed with was in the slow movement of this concerto, when, at the great rising climax (around 4.40 and on) Hough plays the chords staccato, almost trivialising them. Once again listen to Ashkenazy here and listen to how beautifully he plays it.
I had Rachmaninov's own recordings a while ago and I remember he played 2 and 3 a lot faster than we have latterly become accustomed to but I still don't like the start of the 2nd. to go by so almost casually. This is the sound of tolling bells, one of the deepest and most evocative sounds to Russians. Listen to Richter here and how much greater and grander he sounds, even though his tempo is probably slower than the composer wanted.
The 3rd. is a fantastic performance but, by now, I was wondering if Hough could have slowed down just a little. It reminds me of Argerich’s recording of Liszt’s Sonata: absolutely awe-inspiring as playing but she was so fast she seemed to steamroll everything in her path without allowing the music to breathe.
The 4th. is once again hampered by a low-level recording: it sounds as like we are at the very back of the hall. The Paganini Rhapsody is played beautifully.
Once again I’ll say Hough’s playing is stupendous throughout the whole set: if you’re not cheering by the end of the 2nd. Concerto there’s something wrong with you! For me a missed opportunity to capture some of the most exciting Rachmaninov playing I’ve ever heard.

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Review by terence April 7, 2006 (4 of 5 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
nickc is unfortunately absolutely spot-on in his judgements - artistically these are magnificent performances, sonically they are a major let-down. 4.0 (it's not even good 4.0) is definitely a major drawback here - it's hard to get a clear focus on exactly where the piano is without a centre channel, and tonally the instrument can sound tinny. the recording is too recessed, and lacks transparency and sophistication. too often it was listening THROUGH it to try to get to what was actually happening in the playing - not a particularly pleasant or involving experience. bass is also very thin. if you're tempted to buy these performances by the ecstatic reviews they've had (i was), then be aware that there are red book CDs that to many ears will sound substantially better. a shame - as nickc said, the performances ARE sensational.... (P.S. if like me you don't warm to applause at the ends of performances, again be careful - there's loads of it here, except in the paganini rhapsody, which is a studio recording).

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Review by darkroommd December 26, 2006 (5 of 6 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:    
Reference recordings:
PC#1 - Ashkenazy/Previn
PC#2 - Ashkenazy/Previn, Kissin/Gergiev, Cliburn/Reiner
PC#3 - Ashkenazy/Previn, Kissin/Ozawa, Horowitz/Ormandy, Cliburn/Kondrashin
PC#4 - Ashkenazy/Previn, Lill/Otaka
Rhapsody - Lill/Otaka, Cliburn/Kondrashin

I just got this for Christmas and was stuck debuting the redbook layer on standard CD equipment. These performances are outstanding from both soloist and orchestra. If you like pure fireworks and technical mastery, Kissin still takes the cake on 2 & 3. If you like a traditional powerful, lusty, and romantic interpretation, Ashkenazy is a great choice. Nostalgia buffs will love Horowitz, but for me, the age of the recordings gets in the way of enjoying the music.

All that said, if I had to keep one out of all of the above, I would keep this one. Hough's playing is both extremely precise and artistic. His tempi are generally rapid, without excessive showmanship (a la Kissin) or sentimentality. He uses this to great effect in holding together long melodic lines, keeping the music moving forward. I have never heard better musical sense made out of #1, and I had never previously cared to re-listen to it before now.

Admittedly, I was dismayed by the rapid handling of the opening chords of #2 and still remain uncomfortable with it. Like most of the listening public, we are in love with this passage and would like to dwell on it a bit more. Nevertheless, this does agree more with the metronome marking given and does integrate better with the movement as a whole, rather than serving as a mere introduction.

As for the sonics, the unfortunate thing is that Hyperion's SACD surround layer (only 4.0 here) is no better, if not worse, than the redbook. The sound stage takes a dramatic and enormous leap backwards, back to the rear balcony. Some detail in Hough's playing is lost amidst the orchestra and in the reverb. The sound loses most of its separation and transparency altogether. You know you are well back in the crowd at the end of #2 & #3 when you are suddenly immersed in audience applause. Indeed, the audience is right. I just wish I was nearer the front.

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Review by Jay-dub June 7, 2007 (6 of 6 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Other familiar recordings are --
3, Argerich/Chailly
2&4, Ashkenazy/Haitink
2&3, Rachmaninov/Stokowski and Ormandy
3, Lang/Temirkanov
3, Ashkenazy/Ormandy
Rhapsody, Pennario/Fiedler
2, Cliburn/Reiner

Hough's playing brings out the musical values of these concertos more than that of any other pianist I've heard. You hear, under impeccable technical control, a dazzling interplay of motives, delicately shaped melodies, dancing inner parts, innumerable coloristic effects. This style of Rachmaninov playing appeals to our intelligence. If you want a smouldering sensuality, go for Argerich, if you want to be engulfed in a sense of hugeness, go for any of numerous other recordings.

The Dallas orchestra plays fine, with a lot of portamenti (all to the good), but with the first and second violins massed together on the left. Athough Rachmaninov certainly approved this practice in Philadelphia, where it first became common, this seating loses color when compared to the old-fashioned seating with the violins split antiphonally. You can hear the antiphonal seating to good effect in Temirkanov's recording of #3 - wonderful orchestral playing, that (with an exuberant if not very subtle soloist in Lang Lang).

The sound quality on this set varies noticeably from one concerto to the next. #2 and the Rhapsody sound best, while #3 has a slightly ugly piano sound (you'll get used to it, though). The RBCD is well-balanced but lacks vividness; the SACD stereo has significantly improved piano and orchestral tone colors. I have not heard the MCH; it is reputedly not worth hearing.

All in all, this set supercedes every other recording of these pieces that I have heard with the exception of the Argerich, but I am in the market for some good recording with my preferred orchestral seating.

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Review by Jonalogic August 18, 2010 (4 of 8 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
One thing is for sure on this set. Musically, the performances are stunning. The pieces are shaped sensitively by Andrew Litton and accompanied most sympathetically by the Dallas Orchestra. Hough's playing is astonishingly fine throughout.

Bearing is mind that these are live rather than re-cut and assembled studio performances, some of his playing is simply phenomenal. This is not merely virtuosic, the fireworks are always there for sound musical reasons. The 3rd concerto is quite jaw-dropping, in fact. All these performances undoubtedly brought the house down. I award them a solid 5 stars.

And the sound? There are some very varied comments here, and I think I can see why this set provokes quite strong reactions. The first thing to say here is that balances are generally laid back but strong architecturally, portraying quite solid and coherent staging. Unfortunately, overall levels of transparency are not always sufficient to reproduce instruments stage-rear without some clouding - see some of the better 50+ year-old Living Stereos to see how this can be done properly! Throughout this set, the piano sounds clear, vivid and dynamic, whilst things progressively fog up as stage depth increases.

Moreover, the balance and overall sound quality vary notably from performance to performance:

1 and 4 - these are characterised by a very recessed orchestra. Because low-level resolution is insufficient, this sounds a tad muffled. Strings are too thin for Rachmaninov, and a bit gritty because the recording is PCM. Four stars sonically.

Paganini Variations. Noticeably better, with a much more natural balance between orchestra and soloist. Some of the interchange between soloist and inner orchestral lines reveals very strong and coherent depth layering. Strings are still not quite right, though (PCM). 5 stars for sound.

2 - Good balance again between soloist and orchestra. However, this is also the least transparent recording. Although everything is there structurally, instruments beyond mid-stage become progressively more clouded; the overall effect is actually quite soft and rolled-off tonally. 4 stars for sound

3 - Similar to 2 in overall balance, but -unnacountably - much more transparent. The greater resolution means that the rear-stage 'fog' in 2 is replaced by clear air. Also the most natural sounding strings. 5 stars for sound.

My ears, intuition (and BBC experience) tells me that a cleaner signal path and higher resolution recording medium - analogue or DSD - would have resulted in sound quality befitting these superb performances.

Don't get me wrong, the sound varies from good to excellent. But it could have been great.

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Review by Luukas January 21, 2014 (2 of 3 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
Sergei Rachmaninov composed four piano concertos. I have many recordings of these wonderful works (Earn Wild, (Chandos), Bernd Glemser (Naxos), David Helfgott (nro. 3, RCA)) but when I heard this, Stephen Hough's thrilling account, I was surprising: he plays virtuosity and passionality. Tempi are fast, and Andrew Litton conducts Dallas Symphony Orchestra with fire. I like specially Third Concerto. Third movement's beautiful thema is flying, and first movement's difficult cadenza is performed very well. There are audience's wilds applauses after performances. The second concerto's slow second movement is little fast, but it isn't bad thing. By the way, I love these performances and Hyperion label's recording quality is excellent. Outstanding performance!

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