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CD REVIEW

Tastes of Rachmaninoff

A Compilation of Passion

By Roy Esaki

staff writer

Essential Rachmaninoff: 15 of His Greatest Masterpieces

Decca Music Group

Released Jan. 15, 2002

Self-respecting musicians and serious music connoisseurs generally eschew “best of” compilation albums. Such albums pander to an amateur audience, they say, with a hodgepodge of clichÉs selected for their easy accessibility and familiarity. For the rest of us well-intentioned, casual listeners interested in broadening our musical literacy and libraries, a well-done compilation can be a nice addition to one’s repertoire and a gateway to a more serious collection.

Essential Rachmaninoff, an album in Decca’s Essential compilation series, features two and a half hours of salient works of the Russian composer and pianist. The fifteen eclectic works included in the album range from the expected classics, Piano Concerto No. 2 and Rhapsody On a Theme of Paganini (both of which start off one of the two CDs in the album), to more esoteric selections from Suite No. 1 for Two Pianos and Vespers.

Some compilation albums, catering to a less musically scrupulous and budget-minded audience, rely on generic or nameless orchestras and performers; in such cases, one is not paying for a musical interpretation or artistic performance, but is instead buying a generic representation of the notes and gist of a work. With Essential Rachmaninoff, however, most of the tracks are superb, reflecting the fact that Decca had an extensive range of recordings from which to create this compilation. Many of the works are by noted performers: pianist and composer Vladimir Ashkenazy performs piano Concertos Nos. 2, 3, and 4 together with either the Royal Cocertgebouw Orchestra, a prestigious Dutch orchestra, or the London Symphony Orchestra. Other performers include cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, soprano RenÉ Fleming, and tenor Vladimir Mostovoy.

The performances themselves are technically well-executed, and each performance develops the musical potential of each work to its fullest. From neophyte to seasoned listener, one cannot help but appreciate the passion, energy, and mystique that is Rachmaninoff.

The compilation’s version of Liebesfreud, arranged and played by Rachmaninoff himself, is a gem worth mentioning. Because the piece is recorded from a 1926 Ampico piano roll, Rachmaninoff’s actual performance is recreated and recorded with his vigorous flair intact. It is quite remarkable to be able to listen to Rachmaninoff’s own playing with such astonishing clarity.

The album amply demonstrates the blaring passion and technical virtuosity immediately associated with Rachmaninoff. Piano Concerto No. 3, popularized by the movie Shine, serves as a prototypical Rachmaninoff piece, although it may not be of the greatest musical value. Importantly and commendably, however, this album also includes his lyrical and non-instrumental works. The St. Petersburg Chamber Choir sings Nyne Otpushchayeshi, one of Rachmaninoff’s vespers, choral hymns that are rarely included in an introductory Rachmaninoff compilation. The vesper demonstrates a more subtle and intimate form of Rachmaninoffian emotion, while Vocalise, sung by RenÉ Fleming, conveys an imploring, incisive passion that balances the comparatively brutish fervor of the piano concertos nicely.

The album ambitiously includes such a range of various compositional styles and works that continuity and context is sacrificed for variety. Consequently, the overall feel of the album is fairly fragmented. For example, Piano Concerto No. 2 is the only large-scale work for which all movements are included. Only the first movement of the third concerto (which happens to be the familiar crowd-pleasing standard, incidentally) is presented, and only one movement each for Symphonies No. 1, 2, and 3, and Piano Concerto No. 4 are present. For the listener to truly appreciate the movement, it must be heard in the context of the entire work, for which another album must of course be bought. The emerging Rachmaninoff fan would have a duplication of these movements, though it can be very beneficial to hear the same music performed by different groups.

Essential Rachmaninoff is a highly recommended to anyone interested in investigating, dabbling in, or learning about Rachmaninoff. Each piece is musically respectable and enjoyable in its own right, but the true value of this collection is in its comprehensive overview of the passion of Rachmaninoff.