Ashkenazy’s Best “Rach 3”?

Review by: Jed Distler

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Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 8

Vladimir Ashkenazy was the piano soloist in no less than four studio recordings of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. Three came out on Decca, respectively conducted by Anatole Fistoulari (1963), André Previn (1970), and Bernard Haitink (1985). The pianist also set the concerto down in 1975 for RCA, with Eugene Ormandy leading the Philadelphia Orchestra in an expansive and rhetorical reading that differs from Ashkenazy’s leaner, more mercurial 1963 traversal. The Ashkenazy/Ormandy conception is similar to Van Cliburn’s less ideally realized 1958 RCA recording, and improves on the Previn performance with regard to sonics, orchestral detail, and rhythmic backbone. Several examples demonstrate what I mean.

As with Previn, Ashkenazy plays the more massive, chord-based first-movement cadenza (under Kondrashin he opted for the lighter alternative), yet achieves a steadier, more assiduous build that leads to a more overwhelming climax. Also, at the start of the second-movement Intermezzo’s Poco più mosso, the solo flute seems to be in another world under Previn’s watch, whereas it emerges in perfectly aligned conversation with the piano and pizzicato strings with Ormandy presiding. Indeed, Ormandy often uncovers and gives specific character to important inner voices and chamber-like passages that many conductors gloss over in deference to the piano.

Ashkenazy would make expressive points with more economy in his 1985 Concertgebouw remake under Haitink, yet the Ormandy version boasts the pianistic edge. Sony Classical’s 24-bit remastering has more presence and bloom than in RCA’s earlier, deleted Papillons Series reissue. It’s coupled with the 1961 Philippe Entremont/Ormandy/Philadelphia Rachmaninov Fourth concerto: an excellent choice. In a catalog awash with “Rach 3s” of all shapes and sizes, this third and arguably best of Ashkenazy’s four studio attempts easily ranks among the top echelon.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Piano Concerto No. 3: This one; Argerich/Chailly (Philips); Kocsis/de Waart (Philips), Piano Concerto No. 4: Wild/Horenstein (Chesky); Michelangeli/Gracis (Warner Classics)

  • RACHMANINOV, SERGEI:
    Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 30; Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor Op. 40
  • Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano, in No. 3); Philippe Entremont (piano, in No. 4)
  • Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy


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