I have always loved comparing recordings. When I was younger I used to buy new (and old) recordings of the same pieces to compare with the ones already in my collection. Three works I particularly loved to search out in record stores are Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Chopin’s 24 Etudes and the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto. Whenever I have a hankering to hear one of these masterpieces, I have my personal favorite go-to recordings—Perahia or any Schiff performance for the Goldberg (if I need a Glenn Gould fix, which isn’t frequent these days, I much prefer the 1957 live performance to the two more famous studio recordings); Louis Lortie for the Chopin (Yes, Lortie! Perfect tempi, immaculate pedaling, amazing clarity, and enormous range of musical expression. Find it and treat yourself!); and Horacio Gutierrez for the Rach 3.
As I have mentioned before, I taught a class this past semester on Rachmaninoff (and two other composers). When wanting to revisit the Rach 3 while prepping for the course, I realized that I had lent out my Gutierrez disc of the concertos. So I had to turn to one of the other recordings on my shelf: Argerich (1982 with Chailly), Ashkenazy (1971 with Previn), Tzimon Barto, Bronfman, Janis (1958 with Munch), Watts, or Rachmaninoff himself.
For whatever reason, I opted for the least well-known in my collection, the Barto, the only pianist in my list above for whom I felt the need to give a first name. So I pulled out the now-out-of-print EMI label recording which has Christoph Eschenbach conducting the London Philharmonic. (I’ve always been partial to Eschenbach since I grew up watching him during his stint with the Houston Symphony Orchestra.) Barto’s tempi, I remembered, are extremely broad compared to other pianists, and his touch more delicate. I know for a fact that this is not due to Barto’s limited capabilities. I heard him perform live Prokofiev’s monstrous Second Concerto with the Houston SO (also with Eschenbach conducting), and Barto’s formidable technique more than matched the weight required by this enormous, masculine work with its two huge cadenzas. Barto himself is hulking figure—a physical specimen.
At any rate, while Barto’s is not the most dazzling rendition of the Rach 3, it is one that I have always appreciated for its delicacy, clarity and vision. When most pianists plow quickly through the many dense passages at breakneck speeds, Barto plays in such a way and at such a tempo that every nearly note can be heard. You begin to hear things you didn’t realize were buried within Rachmaninoff’s rich textures. In fact, Barto plays many of the passages filled with rapid filigree as if he were playing Bach. Examples of these things later.
One particular passage in Barto’s rendition startled me as being so far removed from the standard interpretation that I barely recognized the passage at all! The passage in question comes in the second movement just before the final orchestral statement of the movement’s principal melody. The section is a contrasting one that features conjunct woodwind melodies that bear an affinity with the stirring principal theme that opens the first movement. (This occurs four measures after rehearsal number 33, or at the bottom of page 66 of this document (score page 64).) Rachmaninoff’s marking “Poco piu mosso” at this spot comes four bars after a “Tempo come prima” marking, which is to say, “Adagio.”
First listen to performance of the passage taken at a tempo that represents the typical interpretation (although perhaps nothing besides the tempo can be called “typical” in this performance!). This is Horowitz’s 1978 performance with Zubin Mehta and the New York PO. Horowitz’s tempo is mm=80.
Now here’s the same passage taken by Barto, whose tempo registers at mm=60!!
The great disparity between Barto’s tempo and that of every other performance of this passage I had heard led me to do some more detailed comparative research. Using my own personal library, the excellent CCM library resources and YouTube, I compared Barto’s performance with 22 others, most of which are considered to be staples in the Rach 3 discography. The chart below shows my findings. The names are color-coded by date—the green end of the spectrum represents the more recent performances and the red end represents the “ripe” old historic recordings. (Think tomatoes here, although I’ve never seen a green tomato turn blue before turning red.) (In some of the versions below, tempi fluctuated, but I chose the fastest steady tempo taken through the pertinent passage.)
Obviously, my immediate reaction to the Barto performance as being aberrant from the standard interpretation was not without reason. I found no performances that came even close to Barto’s tempo. The Horowitz performance I linked above represents the median tempo of those on the chart, so for an even more drastic comparison, you might want to play the Argerich or Horowitz 1930 performance by following the links given below to compare with Barto.
But what to make of Barto’s rendition, aside from the aberrant tempo? My initial reaction to the Barto was that it was all wrong! However, slowly I came around to accepting and then even appreciating his interpretation. Today, I’ve grown to love it for its daring, its clarity, its freshness, and for the fact that it truly dances! Barto plays the passage as if it were a true 3/4 waltz to be danced to rather than taking it at the skipping pace that the notated 3/8 meter perhaps implies. What are your thoughts?
Below are links to the other recordings referenced in the chart, ordered by tempo. The YouTube videos (if linked) take you directly to the pertinent passage.
88 Horowitz 1930 (Coats/London SO) (Info) (YouTube)
88 Argerich 1982 (Chailly/RSO Berlin) (Info) (YouTube)
88 Hough 2004 (Litton/Dallas SO) (Info)
85 Horowitz 1951 (Reiner/RCA Victor SO) (Info) (YouTube)
85 Gilels 1955 (Kondrashin/USSR State Symphony) (Info) (YouTube)
85 Gavrilov 1987 (Muti/Philadelphia SO) (Info) (YouTube)
83 Janis 1958 (Munch/Boston SO) (Info)
83 Kern 2001 (Conlon/Ft. Worth SO) (YouTube)
82 Watts 1960 (Ozawa/ NYPO) (Info)
82 Lugansky 2008 (Saraste/Oslo PO) (YouTube)
81 Rachmaninoff 1939 (Ormandy/Philadelphia SO) (Info) (YouTube)
80 Horowitz 1978 (Mehta/NYPO) (YouTube)
80 Gutierrez 1991 (Maazel/Pittsburg SO) (Info)
78 Volodos 1999 (Levine/Berlin PO) (Info) (YouTube)
77 Cliburn 1958 (Kondrashin/Sym of the Air) (Info)
76 Bronfman 1990 (Salonen/Philharmonia O) (Info)
76 Sokolov 1978 (Kitaenko/Moscow PO) (YouTube)
76 Pletnev 2002 (Rostropovich/Russian Nat’l O) (Info)
75 Bolet 1984 (Fischer/London SO) (Info)
74 Lang 2002 (Dutoit/NHK) (YouTube)
72 Andsnes 1995 (Berglund/Oslo SO) (Info)
71 Ashkenazy 1971 (Previn/London SO) (Inf0)
60 Barto 1998 (Eschenbach/London SO) (Info)
I can’t end this post without sharing a few more of my favorite passages from the Barto performance. Listen to the way in which he plays the filigree that accompanies the orchestra’s imitation of the haunting opening melody that opens the concerto. It’s as if he were playing a Bach invention, with rhythmic precision and virtually no pedal. The result is one of utmost clarity:
Barto tackles all such passages in the same crystalline manner, always playing with and not against or even alongside the orchestra, and always opting for a tempo that allows the soloist of any given passage, whether it be pianist or wind player, to sing the long melodic line, which is always of the greatest importance in Rachmaninoff’s music.
Listen to the clarity and sensitivity in this passage, also from the first movement, and to how the various soloists respond to the gracious spaciousness provided:
And have you ever heard this passage from the third movement played more delicately and serenely? (Headphones recommended for the full effect!)
Finally, here is one of those magnificent passages in which a small detail can elevate the music to sublimity. A relatively subdued presentation of an arch-like melody occurs in the piano. Listen then to the way in which the next phrase completely blossoms, giving the passage a sustained buoyancy and a resulting sense of jubilation! Notice again, the modest tempo allows for great clarity in the accompanying left hand and for its ability to sync perfectly with the churning strings.
When I was young and first discovering this piece, I always preferred the more dazzling recordings where the pianists achieved the seemingly unachievable, tackling the densest of passages at breakneck speeds. Nowadays, I would rather listen to Barto than Janis or even Argerich.