December 2004

Sergei Rachmaninov - The Piano Concertos; Paganini Rhapsody
Stephen Hough, Andrew Litton, The Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Hyperion SACDA667501/2
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD
Released: 2004

by Wes Marshall

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

I’ve been wondering when some intelligent record company would finally bring Andrew Litton and Rachmaninov back together again. His highly acclaimed set of the symphonies with the Royal Philharmonic ([Virgin Classics 59279], sadly no longer available) is still the one I turn to most often, both for sumptuous sonics and a true sense of the composer’s ultra-romantic, opulent sound. Litton is never afraid of showing some emotion, precisely what is needed for convincing Rachmaninov. Stephen Hough’s ability in the romantic repertoire is well documented through his recordings on Hyperion, for which he’s received a mantelpiece full of awards. Can you tell I had high expectations for this set?

Apparently not high enough! Time and again, I was amazed at the felicitous surprises Hough and Litton seem to have discovered in the score. From the martial beat six minutes into the first movement of the Second Concerto to the delicate skittle as Litton holds the orchestra in perfect balance with Hough in Variation X of the Rhapsody, details were exposed with precision. When it came time for some heart, like the famous Variation XVIII, or some sinew, as in the ending movement of the Fourth Concerto, pianist, conductor and orchestra were channeling Rachmaninov. After two and a half hours of listening, I started pulling out old recordings for comparison’s sake: Rubenstein and Reiner, Rachmaninov and Stowkowski, Janis and Dorati, Wild and Horenstein. I am now of the firm belief that Hough and Litton have recorded the definitive set of the Rachmaninov Concertos.

Hyperion’s engineering is demonstration quality and the discs sound superb as CDs or multichannel SACDs. The differences arise where you would expect, the SACD layer being more delicately etched and throwing a wider and deeper soundstage. The CD layer is stunning in its own right. My only complaint, and it is insignificant, is that the concertos are live recordings with outbursts of applause at the end that I wish that could have been edited out. Honestly, if I had been in the audience, I would have applauded, too.

This is the 2004 classical recording of the year.