Site review by Philip Sawyer November 22, 2005
|With volume 38 in their Romantic Piano Concerto series Hyperion finally manage to release one on SACD. Based on this effort one hopes that future releases in this series will also be available in high resolution audio.
Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) was a highly prolific Russian composer. In addition to twenty operas he produced half a dozen symphonies, numerous pieces for piano, chamber works, two cello concertos and five concertos for piano. Having experienced his symphonies through their release on Naxos (recordings originally made for and released by its sister label Marco Polo) I can say that Rubinstein had an ear for melody and an intelligent musical phrase, but also a tendency to spin works out to inordinate length, making the musical invention seem rather thin.
The best known of his concertos, and perhaps the best known of all his works, is the Piano Concerto No. 4. The work dates from 1864 but this recording is of the 1872 revision, and was first performed by the composer. Like all of Rubinstein's output it has fallen into relative neglect, and has rarely been recorded.
A celebrated 1937 live performance by Rubinstein's pupil Josef Hoffmann (which I have not heard) is often referred to in glowing terms. A second live recording of Hoffmann in this work was made in 1945. The concerto was also recorded for Marco Polo by Joseph Banowetz, again a recording which is unknown to me. The only recording that I have heard is one by the late Shura Cherkassky. Fine though that performance is it pales into relative insignificance besides this new outing from Marc-André Hamelin on the Hyperion label.
The second work on this disc is the first concerto by Xaver Scharwenka. Hyperion have previously released Scharwenka's 4th on a Gramophone Award-winning disc. This is the third recording of the concerto, which was first performed by the composer in 1875. There is a recording by Seta Tanyel on the now defunct Collins Classics, but this is the first time I have encountered the work so comparison with that performance is not possible. It sounds convincing in Hamelin's hands but I doubt whether even with this recording the concerto will see a revival of interest.
Both recordings exhibit the well-known Hyperion brightness, though the piano sound is not nearly as clattery as some of their previous recordings of the instrument. This is a problem that slightly marred some of the earlier issues in the Romantic Piano Concerto series. I also note that in some of the earlier releases in this series that the soundstage was decidedly flat. This is not a problem with this new recording.
The surround mix is in 5.0 format with the subwoofer remaining dormant throughout. The piano and orchestra are placed at the front of the soundstage. The rear channels are used to give a slight surround effect with music coming from them at a much lower level than the front channels. It seems that most of the sound comes from the main channels, the centre channel not being used as much as in some recordings I have heard. The piano sounds quite wide, and the spectator is placed as if they were very close to the soloist.
The recording quality is excellent. As mentioned the sound is bright but not to the point of being glaring. The recording emphasis seems to be on the middle and higher ranges with a consequent slight deadening of the bass, and the recording does not sound as warm as I would like. There is plenty of orchestral detail without spotlighting of individual instruments. The booklet contains no information about the recording other than the venue and dates, so I cannot tell whether this is a DSD or a PCM recording. Like so many other Hyperion recordings the effect of the recording venue is relatively neutral, with the close miking meaning that there is not much of an acoustic.
Performance-wise this coupling is unlikely to be bettered. Hamelin has the measure of both works and his dexterity is at times remarkable. The Scharwenka concerto was popular in its day but its neglect is unsurprising. The most fondly remembered Romantic concertos have a big, lush tune in them, and while Scharwenka tries hard (especially in the last movement) he does not quite bring it off. All three movements are marked allegro, and if there is an influence it is Liszt, who performed the work in 1877. There is plenty of opportunity for virtuosic display and I imagine it would have appealed the legendary pianist, to whom the concerto was dedicated.
If Liszt was an influence on Scharwenka, Rubinstein points the way forward to Tchaikovsky and Medtner. There are several elements that reminded me of the latter's concertos, but unfortunately Rubinstein seems incapable of disciplined writing. He also lacks a memorable tune, with the first movement showing promise that is unfulfilled in this respect. In fact I found the whole work practically disappeared from my memory as soon as it had finished. Hamelin's playing is remarkable, but however hard he tries he just cannot make this work seem like the masterpiece that it isn't.
The disc also contains a stereo SACD layer and a CD layer. Both lack the ambience and sense of presence of the surround layer, as you would expect. The stereo SACD layer seems to have a fuller sound than the CD layer, with a little bit more air around the instruments and a slightly raspier quality to the brass. However the differences are minimal. There is a simultaneous release of the coupling on CD only.
As usual with Hyperion there is a detailed booklet with background to the works, the composers and the performers. The conductor here is Michael Stern, whose late father Isaac was a celebrated violinist (for those of you who came in late). As noted above there is little detail about the recording itself, other than the venue (Caird Hall, Dundee) and the dates (18 and 19 February 2005).
Despite my reservations about the quality of the music this is one of the better issues in this series and anyone collecting the series, or who is simply fond of 19th century piano concertos, need not hesitate to acquire this disc.