Like buses, three new recordings of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto have appeared at once. The most startling of them, with Grigory Sokolov as the soloist, is in fact not exactly new; Sokolov no longer plays concertos or records in studios, and this performance dates back to the 1995 Proms in London, where he made one of his rare British appearances with the BBC Philharmonic under Yan-Pascal Tortelier. His account of Mozart’s A major Concerto K488 is from a concert, too, at the Salzburg festival a decade later.
Sokolov’s Rachmaninov playing is immense and, in its mix of supreme fluency and ardent intensity, easily bears comparison with the best versions available on disc. His account of K488 is just as compelling; the opening piano solo in the slow movement is as fine a demonstration as any of how less can mean so much more in a performance. Unfortunately, though, the release suffers from a major technical issue. After Sokolov’s titanic performance of the first-movement cadenza, the piano is audibly never the same again; the one note that is badly out of tune becomes more and more intrusive, especially in lyrical passages.
Despite that, Sokolov sets an interpretative standard that neither of this month’s other new versions comes near. Khatia Buniatishvili’s account with the Czech Philharmonic and Paavo Järvi, paired with Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto, is technically impeccable but musically utterly routine, while Marc-André Hamelin’s, with Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic, is typically agile, sometimes dashing, but in the end rather glib and superficial. He certainly has the most enterprising coupling of the three, though, in Nikolay Medtner’s Second Concerto; Rachmaninov-lite it may be, but it is certainly worth investigating when played as well as this.