March 2001

Rachmaninoff - Piano Concerto No.3
Berlin Philharmonic; James Levine, conductor; Arcadi Volodos, piano
Sony Classical SK 64384
Released: 2000

by Srajan Ebaen

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality *****
Overall Enjoyment *****

[Reviewed on CD]"Once in a blue moon..."

"As rare as cracking an oyster and discovering a pearl inside..."

"A sublime revelation…"

Superlatives act like immune-system boosters. They desensitize us to those momentous occasions when over-the-top descriptives are apt, true and unavoidable. This album deserves every cliché in the book. It’s a performance of astonishing impact and authority. It hypnotically suggests that Rachmaninoff himself -- a giant of a pianist, with hands large enough to span 13 notes, or nearly two octaves -- has risen or temporarily possessed Volodos, imbuing his performance with the secret passion, insight and charisma of its creator himself.

Now that's hyperbole! The classical-music canon, especially for piano, is overpopulated with solid performances, and a fair share of truly great ones. To better the best, one must -- just as in the Olympic Games that consistently reset the limits of what’s humanly possible -- expect the impossible. Please do -- preferably before breakfast, as did Alice in Wonderland. Then listen to this.

As reference, think Martha Argerich with her early Chopin performances. Think Anne-Sophie Mutter and her "Carmen-Fantasie," Corelli’s Concerti Grossi Op. 6 1-6 with the Philharmonia Baroque, or the complete Beethoven symphonies with Harnoncourt and The Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Bring to mind other recordings and performances that have become benchmarks against which newcomers are judged and measured. Now add this.

The twentieth century’s leading virtuoso pianists, both Russian, were Sergei Rachmaninoff and Vladimir Horowitz. Casting their formidable shadows over potential successors, two contemporary masters, again Russian, are considered the most likely candidates to claim their seats in the pantheon of keyboard gods: Evgeny Kissin, born 1971, and Arcadi Volodos, born 1972. The latter in particular, whose prior studies centered on the human voice, endows the primarily percussive piano with lyrical qualities of sweeping and epic scale. With the romantic programme of Rachmaninoff, the resultant magic is truly breathtaking. The real treat, however, is the emotional ownership that Volodos casts over the music. It's as though he himself had lived the life and endured the trials as well as anticipation that caused Rachmaninoff, in preparation for his first American tour, to compose this concerto and practice its solo parts on a "dumb" piano while crossing the Atlantic in 1909.

To augment the pyrotechnic 30 minutes of the concerto itself, the present release adds six solo works, only five of which were originally scored for the instrument. Like the composer and his contemporary, Horowitz, Volodos is fond of transcribing harrowing scores for solo piano, in this case, an andante lifted from Rachmaninoff’s sonata for violincello and piano, Op. 19. This impressionistic dream filled with harp-like glissandi and gossamer is the perfect contrast to the lyrical yet athletically robust concerto which, in typical Rachmaninoff fashion, overwhelms with its fortissimo chorded staccato runs and features melodic themes reminiscent of Slavic folklore. The disc’s second half is a fitting counterpoint that sublimates the first half’s force and scale, transferring it into a quieter, more introspective domain.

This performance is an absolute must-have, even for those who only occasionally listen to classical music. It’ll make you understand what the fuss is all about.