Korstick’s Fascinating Rachmaninov

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RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 3.* Corelli Variations. Piano Sonata No. 2 / Michael Korstick, pno; *Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra; Dmitry Liss, cond / Oehms Classics OC 1896

Before we get into the meat of this review, a point of order regarding the spelling of the composer’s name. Is it Rachmaninoff or Rachmaninov? This is an interesting question because, as you know, Cyrillic does not really translate literally into English. During his lifetime, the famous Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin’s last name was variously spelled Schaljapin at times (mostly by the British). I had a long, knock-down, dragged-out argument with my “fellow critics” at a well-known classical review magazine over the spellings of various Russian names. They called me a heathen when I told them that, frankly, it doesn’t matter how many names are spelled in English as long as, when you read them, the pronunciation is right. Although this pianist-composer was generally spelled Rachmaninoff in English-speaking countries, Rachmaninov is actually closer to the correct pronunciation of his name. So there.

Happily, the music speaks louder than a name spelling, and in this program Michael Korstick has wisely chosen the deepest and most interesting of his four concerti. The best recording of it I’ve ever heard was by the phlegmatic, often brutal-sounding Vladimir Horowitz. It was his first concerto recording, made way back in 1930 with the Russian-British conductor Albert Coates. He had coached his interpretation with the composer, which I think made a great difference, because his playing is wonderfully atmospheric, muted in color rather than splashy and loud, which was his normal way of playing almost everything else. Rachmaninov was very pleased with his reading, which he felt was equal or superior to his own, thus I was interested to hear how Korstick approached this score.

He is superb. Like Horowitz, Korstick has a generally bright piano tone, though, unlike Horowitz, he can mute it wonderfully in the music of Debussy. Even better, Korstick’s way of binding the phrasing, a trait accumulated from decades of playing Beethoven, is superior to Horowitz. There are moments when he, too, plays with an exuberance that sounds wholly Russian, and this is to his credit, for this is Rachmaninov’s darkest and most Russian-sounding score. I was similarly impressed by Dmitry Liss’ handling of the orchestra, which also manages to replicate the muted colors that Coates drew out of the London Symphony all those decades ago. The important thing to understand is that Korstick does not just play the music as if he understands it; he plays it as if he loves it, and thus brings it to life. Yes, I still have problems with some of those virtuosic passages, which always sound to me superfluous in music of such general depth of feeling, but Korstick managed to make them sound less so. Needless to say, his technique is so good that can absorb all of these passages within the overall framework of the music, presenting them as an outgrowth of the music’s themes rather than as mere “filler.”

Korstick plays the second movement in a particularly dreamy manner, almost giving it his “Debussy touch,” which again works splendidly. The third movement, which is the sunniest and most exuberant, receives an appropriately energetic reading from both pianist and conductor.

I admit to not being as familiar with the Corelli Variations or the Second Piano Sonata as I am with the concerto. The former are quite interesting, again calling at times for what I feel is overdone virtuosity but generally good music. Korstick plays them with an easy swagger that suits the score. In the latter portion of the work, which alternates exuberant, virtuosic passages with light interludes of half and whole notes, Korstick makes an effective contrast.

The Piano Sonata, by contrast, seemed to me too much flash and glitter. Korstick tries his best to modify this via his sensitivity of phrasing in the quieter passages, but even here the music lacks character and interest. It’s the only musical let-down in this remarkable album, however, which I highly recommend for the concerto and the variations.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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