57 of 60 people found the following review helpful
I'd like to add my praise to that of most of the the previous reviewers. In the course of digesting this set I have dragged out all my Rachmaninov concerto recordings and was amazed at how many I have. I primarily was comparing his performance of the Third with those of about ten others, including Horowitz/Reiner, Rachmaninov/Ormandy, Rodriguez/Tabakov, Argerich/Chailly, Ashkenazy/Fistoulari and others. Hough has indeed cleared out some cobwebs. His tempi are quite fast but, particularly considering these are live recordings, these are extremely clean performances. One little bobble in the first movement is not at all alarming. What IS amazing is how cleanly he plays the first movement cadenza with those coruscating figures in the right hand. My goodness! This is not a performance to show off his virtuosity however, although of course he has plenty of that. Rather, it is a deeply musical, intensely pondered traversal. This comment applies not only to the Third, but to all four concerti plus the Rhapsody (which is gorgeously played, it must be said). The opening tempo of the Second has raised some eyebrows, and I will admit I'm not entirely comfortable with it; I guess I prefer a more comfy opening, but it is inarguable that the fast series of chords (and their tolling bell-like bass note echoes) do set up the drama to follow.
The sound varies a bit from concerto to concerto. Mostly it's quite good, and quite present. The beginning of the Third is a little recessed and is easily fixed by increasing the volume a little bit. The overall sound places the piano less to the fore than in some studio recordings but one certainly never loses any detail in the piano part because of that. Hough's ability to articulate cleanly in the fastest and softest spots is truly stunning.
I love a lot of Rachmaninov recordings, and all for their own reasons. I believe I will love this set, too. And since it has the most modern sound of any I own, that's a real plus. And his piano technician must have been a good one; this piano is beautifully regulated throughout its range. The bass is rich and sonorous without being clangy, the treble is clear and bright without being tinny. The mid-range accomplishes the transition from low to high without any awkwardness. Kudos to the tuner!
Litton and the Dallas are able partners. There are subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) tempo variations that clearly have been thought out by Litton and Hough together, and the orchestra responds to cues with split-second timing. Ensemble is admirable; attacks and releases are amazing for a live performance. String tone is particularly lush. I noted with pleasure the bassoonist's playing of his/her melancholy countermelody in the first movement of the Third.
33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on October 30, 2004
I have been looking forward to these recordings ever since Hough won the Gramophone Record of the Year with both the Scharwenka/Sauer and the Saint-Saens Concertos. I will also never forget the excitement inside Avery Fischer Hall last December, in the midst of New York's first massive snow storm, when he played the Egyptian Concerto with the New York Phil on a Friday morning to an odd mix of pianophiles and grandmothers who collectively turned into a frenzied mob of "bravo" yellers. It was then I truned into a Hough fan.
These performances of the Rachmaninoff concertos will probably illicit the same kind of reaction, albeit in the comfort of one's livingroom. The last movement of the Third Concerto whips up such storm that even the celebrated Argerich and Horowitz/Barbirolli will find difficult to keep up! The death-defying tempo reminds me of the manic Gieseking recording, except Hough plays with unerring composure and actually has complete control of the thousands of notes in front of him! Take the end of the scherzo section (before the recap) of the final movement, the flurry of 132nd notes, that's with 5 ledger lines!!!, are tossed off with such ease, energy, and a beautiful arching shape that one simultaneous forgets and remembers that it's a famous moment in the repertoire that makes the most versatile virtuosos turn pale!
Apart from the electric sparks, I was also struck by Hough's dramatic lyricism. For instance, when the piano makes its entry in the slow movements of the 1st and the 4th concertos, you don't sense a singer beginning his/her big bel canto number, but rather, you hear an actor professing his most intimate secrets. The musical lines unfold with a convincing narrative direction, and Hough's judgement on dynamics, colours, and agogics make for some really touching story-telling. Hough mentioned in a number of interviews (contrary to David Fanning's amazingly detailed sleeve notes) that he finds the 4th concerto to be the most human and personal of all "five" Rachmaninoff concertos. I can certainly understand why Hough would have had tears in his eyes when he played/recorded the slow movement of the 4th.
What I love the most above all about these recordings is the unadulterated love and enjoyment that come across in the playing, and I can't wait to hear Hough again when he returns to New York to play the First concerto with the Phil in the spring!
33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on December 2, 2004
I own many recordings of Rachmaninov's piano concerti. I am NOT going to try to compare Stephen Hough's new recording to my other recordings. Truth be known, l love them all-so I'll leave the comparison thing to the musical experts! However, Stephen's new recordings moved and touched me very much. I was in tears many times while listening to this recording He seems, to me, to have dusted some of the cob-webs off of the works revealing a great deal of their soul--not just the razzle-dazzle bravura of the works. Granted Stephen Hough plays the works with jaw-dropping technique; nevertheless, to me, he plays them with MUCH more introspection and depth of feeling than I've heard in other recordings. I agree with a previous reviewer that the #3 is fantastic. This recording of Rachmaninov's concertos has become, for me, a "Desert Island" recording. In other words, if all of my recordings of the Rachmaninov piano concerti were melting in a fire, I would try to save this recording first.
If you want to be moved and touched by a concerto recording, buy this disc.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on December 24, 2005
The SACD sound quality is outstanding...feels like I'm actually listening to this performance live!
First disk (#1, 4, and Rhapsody) was performed brilliantly, and several times I had to rewind and capture those heart-wrenching moments, especially from the Rhapsody. Very impressed by Hough's Zimerman-esque technique in the first two.
Then, I switched to disc 2. The moment I heard the opening of #2 first mvt, I was like, "WTF"! IMO, it was a tad bit too fast, but Hough should not be punished; it was very novel. The 3rd mvt of #2 grabbed my heart, and the performance of #3 exceeded my expectations. Hough's cadenza in first mvt was beautiful.
Hough's style is certainly not the kind that some of us are used to hearing (i.e.: the slow, controlled, dreamy tempo played by Ashkenazy, Rubinstein, and Jando), and most can agree that Hough's interpretations is among the most controversial Rachmaninov piano concertos ever recorded.
Rachmaninov has stated that there have been pianists (i.e.: Horowitz and Moiseiwitsch) that will play his pieces better than he can, so no pianists should really follow by Rachmaninov recordings alone. Musicians have different ways of expressing music, but I believe that the separation of a good performance from an average performance is the feelings that arise from your heart after hearing it.
I can tell you that this performance will shed new light to what a Rachmaninov concerto is capable of becoming to one's soul...you will be pleasantly surprised by what Hough has to offer.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Many great pianists, including Rachmaninov himself, have recorded his complete works for piano and orchestra, and even more have recorded one or more of the concertos. I have heard Stephen Hough several times in live performance and have been dazzled by his combination of white-hot virtuosity and rigorous, fresh musical intellect. These qualities are amply evident on this set, taken from live performances (except the Rhapsody) from the spring of 2004. At first hearing Hough's crystalline passagework and fast tempi might seem cold to listeners used to a more indulgent approach; yet his refusal to sentimentalize these pieces pays handsome dividends, particularly on the first CD, which contains the 1st and 4th Concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody. Seldom has the theme of the Finale of the F-sharp minor Concerto been projected with such dancing gaiety, while the shaping of the massive first-movement cadenza is peerless.
About his performances of the 2nd and 3rd concertos one may express some small reservations. The very fast opening to the first movement of the 2nd is surprising and does not seem justified by the rest of the interpretation, while there are some indulgences in shading and shaping the famous second theme of the finale that again seem out of keeping with the rest. The glittering fingerwork in the first-movement cadenza and the long middle section of the finale to the 3rd concerto is astonishing in its clarity and speed, but other parts of the finale are fast to the point of being rushed and breathless, particularly the last page, the one place in this recording where the ensemble gets a bit scruffy. Otherwise the Dallas Symphony under Andrew Litton's direction provides model support. The recording as a whole has a wonderful sonic spaciousness, but the very wide dynamic range means this is not one for casual listening. Nevertheless, these performances rank very high among those currently available of these beloved works.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2004
I must confess that a pianist's 2nd concerto is not the concerto I look forward to hearing in a pianist's cycle of the Rachmaninov Concerti. Many interpretations sound the same, as many people are continuing to play at established tempos that seem to have gotten slower. My alltime favorite recording still is the Ashkenazy/Haitink on Decca, but I was suprised to find out that this was my favorite recording in Hough's cycle. His approach reminds me of Zoltan Kocsis' recordings with Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony, which were also criticized for being too fast (in fact, the 1st movement of the 3rd concerto is the fastest recording of all, 14 minutes-Hough is 15:01). Hough also decides not to roll the chords in the very beginning, which might be the reason for slowing the tempo. Also, the piano quiets down for the statement of the big theme. Many performances you can only hear the piano and not much of the orchestra. I really like the balance so you can hear the main melodic material in the orchestra when the piano is just accompanying (my spot I listen to is in the Intermezzo of the 3rd to see if one can hear the clarinet melody in the scherzo section over all of the piano filgree.) It seems that Hough has put on his metronome to use the markings in the score. The final movement just is stunning and brings a very exciting conclusion. The same happens in the first piano concerto (a work that has been very lucky on recordings with Byron Janis, Arthur Ozolins, Zoltan Kocsis) which is very impressive, especially in the slow movement. The Paganini rhapsody was recorded in the studio. It does not sound any different without an audience, although at the end of the other works, the applause is left in. The tempi here sound just right to me. This recording certainly can hold its head high with other benchmark interpreations including William Kapell (whose 2nd concerto recording also dusts the cobwebs off), Julius Katchen and Artur Rubinstein. With the 3rd and 4th concertos, I do have to register some disapointment. The author of the program notes does not go into the history of the 4th (there are 3 versions now extant) and not much detail of the structure of the movements. Hough and Litton seem to breeze through the concerto but I don't hear too much slavic melancholy, which there is plenty of in this piece. Perhaps I will grow to like this interpretation more, but I still like Ashkenazy/Haitink in the final version of the fourth the best, with Tamas Vasary and Zoltan Kocsis a close 2nd and 3rd. The 3rd concerto also strikes me as too fast, which is a flaw to be heard in Kocsis' recording also. I prefer a more middle of the road approach. It is hard to describe it, because I have about 25 recordings of this piece, and all have their merits. Horowitz/Ormandy, Adnses/Berglund and especially Weissenberg/Pretre (which HAS to be reissued in a newly remasterd version) remain my all-time favorites, with Santiago Rodriguez/Tabakov also providing stellar pianism and a fantastic performance. It is hard to pick "the" recording of any of these pieces, but I certainly can recommend this set to anyone starting out on their adventure in listening to these works. One also has to have Rachmaninov's own recordings of these works, no matter what people say about tempos (which might or might not have been because of 78 rpm recording technology). Many recordings have their merits, and many will respond better to the 3rd than I did. Time and comparison also changes one's perspective on an interpretation. Keep listening! Oh, don't forget more of Stephen Hough's remarkable discography of Lowell Liebermann, John Corigliano, Johnann Nepomuk Hummel, Franz Schubert, York Bowen, Emil von Sauer and other remembered and fogotten piano compositions.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2004
Very rarely does one come across any performance of these works exhibiting such easy virtuosity and eloquent phrasing. Listen to any of the fiery presto movements (such as the last movements of the 1st or the 4th) and hear how the inner voices have been clearly delineated, moulded, and shaded. Not since Hoffman have there been pianists possessing such total stylistic control over voicing. Hough has completely re-thought the tempo relations within individual movements and between movements of these concertos. The fourth for once emerges as an artistic masterpiece with structural cohesion. A superb achievement!
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on July 27, 2006
I've spent years working on these pieces as an amateur. In fact, collecting recordings of these concertos has been one of my greatest enthusiasms. Having heard practically all the commercially available recordings (and some) out there, I can only bow down to Stephen Hough for this monumental achievement.
It's not just the virtuosic bravura and utter refinement of the pianism, but what sets Hough apart from everybody else is his sense of timing and complete avoidance vulgar Soviet-style emoting. Hough's sense of tempo rubato, lingering in the beginning of the phrase before rushing towards the climax, is a lost art that was common practiced by the greatest artists from the beginning of the 20th century (such as Rachmaninoff himself, Tauber, Cortot, Heifetz, Kreisler...).
I urge people to follow these performances with a score in hand. It is an objective lesson in how maximum expressive freedom (often shockingly revelatory) can be achieved by a thorough understanding of a composer's rhetoric and notations.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2004
Stephen Hough triumphs with yet another release that shows off his typical blazing virtuosity and turn of the century (20th, that is!) elegance.
What's so impressive with these recordings of the warhorses is that all of the musical rhetorics - turn of phrase, harmonic suspence, judgement of micro-timing - had been freshly conceived. As countless newspapers and magazines (check out Hyperion or Hough's own website to see the most impressive of musical/critical honour rolls!!) have pointed out, Hough's brisker tempi and tempo rubatos show off Rachmaninoff's imcomparable gift for piano texture writing.
This is an entirely different approach from the ponderious and emotionally-leaden interpretations that have been fashioned by many modern pianists. What Hough offers is the sort of playing that is alive at every moment and delicately balances Rachmaninoff's own dignified freedom and passionate elegance. Bravo!!
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2005
This recording of the Rachmaninov concertos have striven to take as their example the composers own recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra. This may sound very pedantic but this was not just an exercise in "correct" performance but sought to restore the embellishments that Rachmaninov made (such as the additional wind parts in the 4th concerto) that have been lacking from all recorded performances since. In order to accomplish this, some detective work was necessary. The parts were supplied by the Philadelphia Orchestra but Andrew Litton found there were some differences between the parts and the recordings, the changes of which were noted and included in these recorded performances.
Another point was to observe the composer's tempo markings, dynamics and performance practice which had been largely ignored over the years. The hue and cry over the "correct" tempo in music of the Baroque and Classical period compositions is well-known but the issue certainly extends down to music of the 20th century. For example, the tempo of the "Nimrod" section in Elgar's Enigma Variations has been played slowly, like a funeral march (and it has been used for such occasions) but Elgar conducted it at a faster pace. I agree with Jeremy Nicholas, who reviewed this set in Gramophone, that the Hough/Litton records are the top choices in each individual concerto. Some people accustomed to a particular recording may suggest that there is something wrong with the tempo at certain times. The reason simply is that Rachmaniov's marking have been followed. I will still keep the beautiful recordings I have by Cyril Smith (the Second and the Rhapsody), Martha Argerich (the 3rd) and those by Rachmaninov himself but I will turn to Stephen Hough more often.
The recordings of the four concerti were made live but the audience is only heard at then end with their applause; the Paganini Rhapsody is a studio recording. Stephen Hough plays with great depth of feeling and is very sensitive to the expression demanded by Rachmaninov. Each work is simply superbly played with the Dallas Symphony providing support for the soloist. The balance between piano and orchestra is close to perfect. Highly recommended.