Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto, which he composed in 1909 for a concert tour of the US, belongs up there with the greatest examples of the genre.
The 20th century produced no greater concerto for any instrument, and the mixture of breathtaking display and brooding expressive intensity with which Rachmaninov invested the solo part, coupled with the sombre colours of the orchestration, give the work a place alongside the best of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. It is, without question, the composer's masterpiece.
The Third has been well served on disc, in every era of recording from 78s to CD. The composer himself was the soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy in 1939, but the three versions by Vladimir Horowitz dominated the competition for a very long time - the first from 1930, the last from a concert in 1978, with the 1951 studio performance, conducted by Fritz Reiner, the most penetrating and revelatory.
It was only the belated appearance on disc of Martha Argerich's live performance, with the Berlin Radio Symphony conducted by Chailly, recorded in 1982, that threatened Horowitz's hegemony.
If there is another pianist today who possesses Argerich's ability to amaze and enchant it is Mikhail Pletnev, even if there are times, in concert and on disc, when he seems unengaged and withdrawn. There's no hint of that in his new version of the Third Concerto, however. Recorded in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory last September with the orchestra that Pletnev created, it is arguably the finest studio-made performance since Horowitz's more than half a century ago.
As a pianist Pletnev has quite a lot in common with Horowitz - the same effortless virtuosity, a similar range of keyboard sonority from the slenderest, most silvery pianissimo to the most dark, thunderous fortissimo that seems to be dragged from the very depths of his instrument, and that special, unfailing ability to characterise music in an almost super-real way. But he is a far more musical pianist than Horowitz was, if not quite the same natural showman. Pletnev is always a searching interpreter, able to fuse instinct with intelligence.
Those qualities are all here in this account of the Rachmaninov, whether in his articulation of the opening theme of the first movement (even if neither he, nor anyone else, can match Horowitz's reptilian languor here), and the way he builds remorselessly to its huge, overwhelming cadenza, or the way in which he stage-manages the piano's entry to the slow movement, or the momentum he steadily accrues without ever rushing in the finale. It is magisterial throughout, and physically involving, too.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the performance, though, is the care that Mstislav Rostropovich lavishes on the orchestration. Rostropovich has a reputation as a rather generalised conductor, who brings the same highly energised approach to everything he tackles, but here he is clearly fascinated by the shadows and half-lights of Rachmaninov's scoring, and surrounds the soloist with a wonderfully detailed web of instrumental lines
The coupling - Prokofiev's Third Concerto rather than more Rachmaninov - is the only disappointment, though listeners less allergic to Prokofiev's meretricious brand of pawky neoclassicism than I am may disagree. Pletnev's playing of it is pretty wonderful, too, inviting comparisons once again with Argerich's dashingly slick recordings, and Rostropovich does bring out the humour in the orchestral writing. But it is the Rachmaninov that makes the disc so special, and so memorable.
It is unfortunate that the new recording by Nikolay Lugansky has coincided with the Deutsche Grammophon disc, for it cannot live in the exalted company that Pletnev's playing keeps. Lugansky is a fine, highly musical player, and he has all the technique required to cut through the densest thickets of Rachmaninov's writing, but his account lacks personality. He just glides through the opening movement, for instance, never engaging with its disturbing power.
He is better suited to Rachmaninov's First Concerto (which was composed in 1891, but thoroughly overhauled and some of its most Tchaikovsky-like moments removed before publication in 1917), and the accompaniments from Sakari Oramo and the CBSO are always aware and carefully dovetailed. The Third Concerto, though, demands that bit more.