Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 3, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini – Denis Matsuev, Mariinsky Orchestra

  • Genre: Classical
  • Recording
  • Released: 2009 on Mariinsky

Very enjoyable, from start to finish. Chancing upon Denis Matsuev while searching for alternative interpretations of the Rach 3, I just, er, sort of jumped into it…

And we were not disappointed. Oh boy. With Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 3, it’s fleshed out in all its brutal, bloody glory. The keys ripple with vigour like well-flexed muscles. In the 1st movement, we witness the ‘vision’, then the metaphorical tip-over and ‘fall’, accented excellently by Matsuev’s rendition of the famous cadenza. Instead of going all-out virtuoso, blitzing across the keys, he starts off wrenchingly slow, which speeds up and crushes the listener in a bear-hug of bleakness. At one point, it seems that we are almost looking into the void itself. Then the painful descent starts right down into despair and the ennui of the 2nd movement. Towards the end of the 2nd movement, Matsuev’s fingers retreat, then rear themselves suddenly like the devil possessed. The clarity of this moment here is always inspiring – like the whole piece decided to ‘wake up’ and pursue whatever it was pursuing so doggedly, over the entire course of the music, but with a hard-won joy that persists till the end.

This tour de force continues with Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Passion, emotion and grotesque joy take up their places to tango with each other, which is delightful to see, given both Matsuev and Mariinsky Orchestra’s seamless partnership at play in the entire album. For the more emotive passages, we get to see more of Matsuev’s introspective flair – and then, BOOM! Off again, on another roller coaster, with the orchestra and Matsuev running circles around each other, building suspense – until the last note, where all is drawn to an abrupt close.

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Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3, Ravel: Piano Concerto No 2, Gaspard de la Nuit – Martha Argerich, Claudio Abbado, Berliner Philharmoniker

  • Genre: Classical
  • Live recording
  • Released: 1995 on Deutsche Grammophon Records

Today’s album of the day is a delicious trio of Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich’s passionate performances from 1967 to 1975, with Claudio Abbado as conductor, and the Berliner Philharmoniker. We are dealing with top stuff here. Known for her passionate performances and occasional disregard for the musical score, she much prefers to imbue every note with soul, instead of adhering staunchly to the composer’s wishes.

Her stunning performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3 feels like zapping myself repeatedly by poking my finger through a live socket. Frisson after frisson, this wild electricity current running down the spine! It’s cheeky and exuberant, with some very unexpected poignant moments. Some parts of it sound like a drunken man lurching and falling onto the floor! Or galloping, mad horses…

Next, we move on to Ravel’s compositions, the first of which is Piano Concerto in G Major. The dramatic entrance of the 1st movement is interspersed with typical delicacy, all fluttery, swooning, weaving its melody beautifully with the harp…then the demented version of Argerich tosses her head and comes to life, ending on an explosion. Soon we enter the 2nd movement, an elegaic, almost funereal presence that tip toes in and out of the brooding silence, swelling into an awesome symphony, but which is only a mere breeze – we are treated to a boisterous 3rd movement that has a witty moment, where the wind section comically deflates, before gathering speed and ending on a thunderous note.

The last performance, Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit is haunting but full bodied with light, the lower keys handled with such subtlety that they are reimagined as smoky, halluncinatory plumes, the shadows flirting exclusively with the corners of your eyes. It’s precisely this reason why her rendition freaks the shit out of me. I thought I’d stumbled upon the holy grail when listening to Alexander Tharaud’s version, but Argerich commands an ethereal sensuality that’s not present with Tharaud, which is especially fitting for the 2nd movement. Alas, she leaves the listener dangling desperately at the edge of the seat, wanting more, more, and more…