RACHMANINOFF:  Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30.  Andante from Cello Sonata, Op. 19 (arr. Volodos).  SÈrÈnade in B Flat Minor, Op. 3 No. 5.  Romance in F Minor, Op. 10 No. 6.  Prelude in F Minor, Op. 32 No. 6. Etude-Tableaux in C Sharp Minor, Op. 33 No. 6
Arcadi Volodos, pianist/Berlin Philharmonic Orch/James Levine, cond.

SONY CLASSICAL 64384 (F) (DDD) TT:  61:02

Here is the long-awaited first concerto recording by the remarkable Arcadi Volodos. His first CD, issued in 1997, consisted entirely of virtuoso transcriptions, including some of his own; his second was from a Carnegie Hall recital October 1998 featuring music of Schumann, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. Now we have his  performance of the mightiest of all piano concertos, Rachmaninoff's Third, recorded live in June 1999 with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by James Levine, with shorter works of Rachmaninoff as fillers for a full-priced CD—that still has a playing time of only slightly more than an hour.

Volodos has made a specialty of this concerto for several years.  I saw him perform it with Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw in February 1998 and it was magnificent.  I've also heard air-checks of his performances of it with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy, the Hungarian National Philharmonic under Zoltán Kocsis, and the Bournemouth Symphony under Jakov Kreisberg from the BBC Proms which is the most exciting of all as Volodos, orchestra and conductor collaborate in music-making of the most impetuous inspiration. Sony's new release was recorded  live in Berlin's Philharmonie in June 1999, with but a few minor sounds to betray presence of an audience. The concerto is presented without the minor cuts Volodos made in broadcasts I've heard, and of course he plays the more elaborate first-movement cadenza which is what just about what everyone plays nowadays, even though it rather unbalances the work overall. With one of the world's great orchestras and a renowned conductor, I expected much—and was a bit disappointed.  In spite of magnificent playing from Volodos—his technique is quite astounding—  there is little sense of abandon, and he is not helped by Levine, or by the engineers.  Piano sound  per se lacks brilliance (even on my J&M Labs speakers!), orchestral textures  are homogenous with limited sense of presence, no silky soft strings to engulf the piano's gentler statements. Either Levine or the engineers made the important trumpet punctuations virtually inaudible in the grand Vivacissimo passage following the huge descending cadenza in the finale, #74 in the Schirmer score.  These trumpet accents are important to punctuate the piano's grand statement—and simply aren't to be heard.

The CD also contains the shorter works listed above, beginning with Volodos' exquisite arrangement for piano of the Andante from Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata.  One could say that his decorative embellishments almost turn this into a salon piece, but the result still is beautiful. His performances rival Rachmaninoff's own for the two works the composer recorded (SÈrÈnade/Prelude Op. 32 No. 6).

The accompanying booklet is one of those annoying fold-outs with a total of 14 pages, white print on black shiny paper,difficult to read, even more difficult to get back into the jewel case. Two of the pages are devoted to minimal notes by Paul Myers; other panels are the French and German translations, plus photos of Volodos, Levine and the BPO.

R.E.B. (Sept. 2000)