In the Soviet Union under Stalin, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s music was illegal. In January 2021 under the lockdown, it’s also forbidden to play or invite an audience to his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his even more famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. So it makes sense to celebrate those two iconically poignant pieces this month, just to thumb our noses at the lockdowners. Pianist Anna Fedorova has an album of both, plus some preludes, with the St. Gallen Orchestra conducted by Modestas Pitrenas, streaming at Spotify.
While youtube page hits are notoriously inaccurate, there’s no question that her concert performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 has generated a lot of traffic. How does her version of these two somewhat less harrowing pieces compare? After the tumbling, torrential piano introduction to the Concerto No. 1, Pitrenas puts the orchestra on a very long leash, with a heartfelt, languid fluidity throughout the first movement. A delicate balance of cascades from Fedorova against mournful horns and orchestration develops, up to a restrained crescendo that many other ensembles love to rampage through. This crew make it work just as well under lower lights, even as. Fedorova’s torrents rise to gale force at the end.
The calm and suspense of the second movement are absolutely Lynchian, Fedorova often embracing a spaciousness that borders on lurid. So the hurried first part of the concluding movement is a surprise, less a romp than a scurry. Happily, a glistening nocturnal calm descends from there, although the ending also feels like a rush job in places.
The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is also fast, beginning with a real strut. Paganini was legendary as a shredder and Fedorova seems determined to match that – although that sets up a noticeable contrast with the calmer passages, Pitrenas again opting for muted elegance, even in the famous love theme. Ultimately, this is classical music as entertainment. The stabbing, dancing quality of the seventh segment, and toward the end, is closer to Moussorgsky phantasmagoria – or Gogol Bordello – than, say, Chopin. This isn’t the most nuanced version of the suite ever recorded: “This album is like an express train,” Fedorova enthuses in the album liner notes. And how. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphis Orchestra put out a predictably much more lush version which those seeking greater luxuriance should check out.
Fedorova takes an energetically painterly approach to the preludes: she feels close to the composer and as a fellow expat clearly misses her home turf. She gives Op. 23 No. 1 a very understated gloom bordering on despondency. She sees Op. 32 No. 12 as a weary winter tableau, although she really rocks it out, getting unusual shimmer out of the belltone riffs, which is no small feat in what’s actually a far more haunting piece of music.
By contrast, Op. 32 No. 5: is all lilacs in springtime, a charming, spring-loaded performance. Her take of Op. 23 No. 2 has the same spirit, but with a regal, High Romantic angst. Some of these interpretations leave room for debate, but there’s no criticizing Fedorova’s passion for this music.