Two non-Russians scale monuments of Russian style
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 03/18/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Knowing that Barry Douglas won the Tchaikovsky piano competition in 1986, the first non-Russian since Van Cliburn three decades earlier, I was intrigued to hear his Rachmaninov Second. RCA gave Douglas a good run for almost a decade (he was a favorite of British critics), and this is a sweeping acount in big sound, if a little harsh. Tilson Thomas conducts the LSO, then his own orchestra, in the grand manner, but Douglas himself doesn't make a strong enough impression in the Russian idiom. Hearing non-Russians in Rachmaninov is like hearing non-Americans in Gershwin: despite flawless technique, the imitation can't bear comparison to the real thing. Douglas lacks plushness, passion, and abandon, even though I msut admit that his piano playing per se is very fine.
The disc-mate is Byron Janis playing the Rachmaninov Third with the BSO under Charles Munch, a considerably older recording. A Horowitz protege, Janis used to charge at Russian music with twice the fierceness of the real Russians. Munch sets a fast pace, considerably faster than what we hear today--no dawdling or sentimentality here. The whole point is to get the fireworks going as fast as possible, and Janis doesn't disappoint. His flying fingerwork is clear, pointed, and a bit brusque. I can't say that I prefer him to Kissin, Argerich, or Volodos in this dazzling but overlong concerto. He's certainly the best American I've ever heard in the work, by a mile."