Monday, October 9, 2023

Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto 2, Kirill Gerstein, Kirill Petrenko/Berlin Philharmonic


Music Review Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 2, Kirill Gerstein (piano), Kirill Petrenko (conductor) / Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings

Apple Music has almost 300 recordings of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto listed. It would be a grand claim to say I’ve heard them all, but I have certainly sampled a vast array, driven by my deep affection for this composition. The reason? This concerto is a personal favourite, a work that has compelled countless hours of dedicated listening and comparative study from my student years until now.

However, my enthusiasm for this piece often means I approach new recordings with caution. This latest rendition, under the baton of Kirill Petrenko and the virtuosity of pianist Kirill Gerstein, was no exception. I have tracked Petrenko’s journey with the Berlin Philharmonic keenly, and even though their discography is still limited, what exists showcases his meticulous attention to detail and his flair for uncovering fresh textures without micromanaging.

This is certainly true here, so I’ll declare my verdict upfront: This recording is a magnificent addition to the canon of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd and the accolades go primarily to Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic. This is not to overshadow Kirill Gerstein’s brilliant piano performance, characterised by a fluid rubato and impressive technical prowess. But it is Petrenko’s contribution that stands out for its revelation of the lush orchestral canvas. With this recording, the connection between Rachmaninoff’s compositions and their influence on Hollywood film scores becomes crystal clear. The Berlin Philharmonic doesn’t merely play; it envelops the listener in a sweeping romance, expertly crafted with nuances complementing the soloist’s articulation.

From the very first bars following Gerstein’s dramatic entry, the orchestra embraces and fills the space with sophistication. Recorded at Berlin’s open-air Waldbühne, it’s nothing short of miraculous how the Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings captured such a vivid sound without intrusive external noise. Petrenko’s orchestra is transcendent – the winds are expressive and meld perfectly with the velvety strings. Also, note the treatment of the timpani crescendos, bold and commanding, especially before the recapitulation of the first movement.

As for the second movement, it’s one of the most emotionally stirring renditions I’ve encountered. The Berlin Philharmonic here truly outdoes itself; it’s as if a veil has been lifted and we’re hearing the music in its purest form. Where to begin? The pastoral lyricism of the woodwinds? The haunting melodies of the flute and clarinet, here so characterfully shaped? Gerstein’s expressive pianism?

Similarly, in the final movement, the orchestra’s tender moments before the piano re-establishes the theme are painted with a nostalgic palette, so suitable to this music. Here, the strings give a new definition to melancholy. And kudos to Gerstein’s introspective and expressive playing, which deserves extra mention in this case: this is not merely a mechanical traversal of the score. When we finally arrive at the grand finale, both the orchestra and soloist go all out, delivering a truly captivating conclusion.

While I am enthusiastic about this new recording, as an aficionado of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd, I feel compelled to engage in some constructive nitpicking. In the final movement, following the cadenza, one could argue for a more prominent brass section at 9:37 and a slightly louder piano. At 9:56, I would have preferred a slower tempo, akin to the composer’s own pacing in his recording with Stokowski. There are also a few instances where the piano’s entry could have been more prominent: for instance, in the recapitulation of the first movement and the climax of the second movement at 9:24. However, given that this seems to happen in similar climactic passages, it may be an intentional interpretative choice in the context of the piece’s overall structure and emotional arc. Still, I admit, I’m truly nitpicking here.

However, despite these small criticisms, borne from my long-standing love for this score, this new rendition of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto is profoundly beautiful. It delivers emotional intensity without sentimentality. Petrenko presents this oft-performed work in a new light, and it is no exaggeration to say that the Berlin Philharmonic’s performance is phenomenal: This is the sort of music-making that can easily move the most hardened listener to tears.

I can’t recall the last time I was reminded of Karajan’s era while listening to the Berlin Philharmonic, but Petrenko has managed to evoke that feeling, adding a modern twist. This recording is not to be missed.


On a High Note

  • Technical Brilliance: Yuja Wang’s exceptional skill at the piano is evident, particularly in the first concerto and the last movement of the third.
  • First Concerto Excellence: Both the orchestra and Wang deliver a top-tier rendition in the first concerto, with no apparent flaws.
  • Fourth Concerto Surprise: Often considered the underdog, the Fourth Concerto stands out as a first-rate performance in this set, especially in terms of orchestral and soloist interplay.

Room for Variation

  • Inconsistent Tempo: Wang’s approach to tempo is inconsistent and doesn’t always align with Rachmaninoff’s own recordings in the 2nd and 3rd concertos, which could serve as authoritative references. Not a big deal but purists might disagree.
  • Orchestral Shortcomings: The orchestra’s contribution under the conductor’s direction often falls short in terms of engagement and nuance, particularly in the Second and Third Concertos.
  • Lack of Fresh Interpretation: The performance, while technically solid, doesn’t bring any new insights or exciting variations to these well-known pieces.


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