Review: Philharmonia plays Rachmaninov 2 with Vladimir Ashkenazy

Does the world need another recording of Rach 2? I’m never entirely sure we do necessarily. If we’re going to listen to another be sure it’s a cracking one.

I’m not asking for landmark recordings necessarily (whatever they are really), but what will get the big thumbs up from me are those performances where I’ve heard something different, and when I can see how it’s worked.

Fortunately for the Philharmonia, their release of a live recording of Rachmaninov 2 with Vladimir Ashkenazy achieves that. Little wonder they were keen to release it. I imagine that record label Signum are quite pleased with it too. 

The scale of the work, its orchestration, and the inclusive style of romantic music Rachmaninov makes it tempting to wallow in places. That’s when the slow movement gets a little more drawn out (and the clarinettist goes a little blue in the face), and when the fast movements lack the drive and the oomph necessary to lift the mood. Speed, promptness and efficiency isn’t necessarily the enemy of romantic expression, where wallowing self-indulgence can be. Throughout this live performance Ashkenazy favours the former. Thank God.

First Movement

Balletic swells across the entire orchestra really bring out an unexpectedly pastoral feel, especially in the legato string subject. It’s the detail that emerges in this live sound recording which excites and intrigues – each distinct voice having a distinct personality. In the case of the horn calls, there’s a fearless quality to the sound in the context of the rest of the orchestra which (I’m a sap) breaks my heart. That range of detail is heard through the final section of the last movement too. Striking for me is the way I’m left with a growing awareness of my own emotional state after the final chord has finished sounding at the end of the first movement. I’ve not experienced listening to the symphony in this way before. 

Second Movement

Swift and tight. There’s a restless insistence underpinning the whole thing illustrated by the constantly driving speeds every time the main subject returns. Some previous recordings characterise give this movement a cantering quality. I prefer the relentless, perhaps even perilous quality Ashkenazy gives it. 

Third Movement

The clarinet solo in the third movement feels more distant in this recording. The tone has harder edges giving the effect of a brave youthful character facing the world, defiant and alone. The effect is unexpected: I want to hug this imaginary person and tell them everything’s going to be alright. The revelation in this recording is the effect on me when the main subject returns (in the strings). It’s the same material, but it feels as though we’ve reached an uneasy sense of resolution. Emotionally, we’ve come out of the ringer. We’re at one. That’s much to do with the strings softening the main melodic idea and the sweet legato counter-melodies from the woodwind. The effect is restorative.

Fourth Movement

Because the sense of resolution is more obvious at the end of the third, that transforms the fourth symphony into more of a joyously celebratory affair. This like no other recording I’ve heard feels like less of a recovery from the intensity of the third movement, more like a well-earned party.

My go-to recording (largely because it was the first recording of the work I ever heard) has always been the London Symphony Orchestra with Gennadi Rhozdhdestvensky from 1988. Ashkenazy’s performance with the Philharmonia is considerably more agile whilst still maintaining the considerable emotional clout of Rachmaninov’s composition.

Listen to Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra play Rachmaninov’s second symphony in a live recording on Idagio or Spotify

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Album Review: Lewis Wright’s ‘Duets’ featuring Kit Downes

Vibraphonist Lewis Wright’s debut album on Signum features lifelong friend Kit Downes on piano and a short set of ravishing improvisations.

The only real problem with the album is that it's over all too quickly. But that might be a canny move on the part of Signum Classics – an album built for a playlist generation. The line between a playlist and an album may well be blurred or even indecipherable nowadays (especially when people start bandying around the word 'curation').

More and more I'm listening to entire album as statements in themselves. That's a good thing for the composer and the performer in our on-demand world, moving the listening experience beyond the technicalities of performance or the purity of the capture, transforming a list of tracks into a richer, more immersive experience. 

In that way 'Duets' delivers. It is an addictive listen. A carefully put together list of new works that shift effortlessly from one mood to another (I'm trying desperately to avoid the word 'curation' here), avoiding musical cliche, and showcasing the dizzying technical mastery of both musicians in every single bar. 

‘Duets’ opens with Fire & Flow, a track built on a recurring three-chord motif that rocks between menace and moments of joyous celebration.

Fortuna builds the intensity with a similarly pleasing commitment to the use of blistering piano chords, decorated with a melodic line that both knows its boundaries but insists pushes them as far as is possible. Fireworks abound. Jaws drop accordingly. 

The third track – An Absence of Heart – offers a poignant moment of reflection. There’s a hint of the West Coast in there with a smattering of mid-20th century Paris to boot, mixed with a tantalising hint of mystery.

The fierce opening subject that starts Tokyo 81 appeals because of its tidiness, punchiness, and desperately cool articulation. The main subject’s unrelenting pursuit towards its ultimate conclusion is a thing of beauty.

It is the fifth track – the sweet-sounding Sati – on the album which really shines for me, laying out a story dripping with melancholy, loneliness and regret. Here Downes and Wright create a creepy kind of air with a tightly-drawn melodic subject and relatively contained improvisation. A circus feel underpins Sati which gives the whole thing a alluringly pensive kind of feel. An introvert's montage music. 

'Duets' featuring Lewis Wright and Kit Downes is available for pre-order now on Amazon and released on Friday 6 April. 

Read an interview with pianist Kit Downes on the Meet The Artist site. 

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Review: Fire On All Sides / James Rhodes

James Rhodes latest release on Instrumental Records International is a lovingly curated sequence of fiercely intense performances. The gratifyingly unfussy pianist has concocted a treat that demands listening from beginning to end uninterrupted.

I am at risk of sounding like a fanboy. That would never do. Anyone who leaves their objectivity behind will be sneered upon so the writing guidelines state.

But with Rhodes’ Fire On All Sides its difficult not to do anything else. His 2016 recital tour programme of Chopin, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff is electrifying stuff.

Much of this enthusiasm is I wonder down to the autobiography he released a couple of years back. Instrumental gave us the pianist in all his vulnerability, positioning his musical talent as a miraculous product of his mental suffering.

Well no. The music is part of that suffering – part of the healing process. Read Instrumental and discover the passion he has for his art. Then listen to any recording of him play. It’s impossible to separate James Rhodes’ personal story from the music he’s playing. Perhaps reconciling the two is the answer instead.

By doing so, there’s an unequivocal and irresistible authenticity to his performances. And perhaps its that which creates the necessary link between audience and performer when listening back to a recording.

Because that’s what happens here. That’s what has happened every time I’ve listened to Fire On All Sides in its entirety, all in one go. It’s as though I’m there in the Britten Studio in Snape where it was recorded, in the space feeling the emotion as the music is played.

The prompt efficient storytelling of the first prelude in the ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ prepares us for an exquisite rapid fire range of modulations in Chopin’s monumental F Minor Fantasie – what at times feels like passport to an intensely intimate and self-reflective domain.

The subsequent Chopin Polonaise felt more difficult to get absorbed in, but the comparatively easier melodic material in Beethoven’s A Flat Major Sonata No.31 made the personalities James Rhodes commanded at the keyboard more easily discernible.

After a fierce allegro molto the pianist demonstrates remarkable facility to extrude the raw beauty from Beethoven’s melodic material in the final movement adagio ma non troppo. The harmonic transitions in the run-up to the recapitulation in the allegro ma non troppo are delicious.

Later, Rachmaninoff’s E Flat Minor Etude has an unwavering human focus to it that makes the work a hypnotic.

Come the final release in Yvar Mikhashoff’s arrangement of O mio babbino caro tears start to flow. Little wonder. James Rhodes is a a remarkable communicator, one who wants his audience to love the music he does.

There is a tiny rub. Inside the CD cover, one sentence sets the whole thing to self-destruct. In explaining the link between the CD and the book he’s written about the tour he embarked on in 2016 he says, “Like every other area of my life, it’s heavily based on fantasy.”

It raises a tantalising question for me. Have I been hoodwinked by him? Is this self-deprecation, subversion, or a defensive technique? Is he laughing at me when he says that? Or is he keeping me and countless others at arms length, protecting himself from feedback he thinks he wouldn’t be able to process.

Maybe that in itself is his James Rhodes’ intention, to focus attention on what matters most: the music.

The answer, of course, is to read the book – billed by Instrumental Records as “an intimate exploration of what it’s like to be a celebrated pianist embarking on a world tour, when you have multiple voices jostling in your head, sabotaging your happiness and sapping your confidence.”

Right now I’m approaching the book with trepidation. I don’t want anything to damage this quite unexpected listening experience.

  • Fire On All Sides‘ is released on Friday 12 January 2018
  • The book ‘Fire On All Sides’ is released on Thursday 11 January 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon

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