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Lise de la Salle, not yet out of her twenties, makes an extraordinary case for Rachmaninov, partnered to the hilt by the Philharmonia Zürich under Fabio Luisi and recorded in the stunning acoustic of the Opernhaus Zürich and at the city’s Tonhalle. Extraordinary, because time was when Rachmaninov was scorned in France (for Nadia Boulanger he was ‘très vulgaire’). Yet here he is elevated to the heights in playing of pin-point definition, as alert to the occasional still small voice of calm as to page after page of fraught emotional intricacy. The demands are daunting yet from de la Salle, everything is met with unfaltering assurance, her musical strength and concentration far transcending other more obvious forms of display.

For those who like their Rachmaninov with his nerve-ends exposed, other performers of his music will have more immediate appeal – particularly when it comes to the Third Concerto: Horowitz, for whom this piece became a calling card; Argerich with her rocket launch into the Finale; and more recently Yuja Wang and Stephen Hough, with their show-stopping bravura. But if you wish to hear a Rachmaninov of a rare eloquence and seriousness, then de la Salle is for you. Her unusually measured start to the Third Concerto allows the opening theme all of its gentle melancholy, and those long-delayed climaxes time to soar and expand. She makes striking melodic sense of the cadenza’s whirlwind patterning (she chooses the slimmer version); and while powerful and rhapsodic, her performance never succumbs to a more familiar pressure-cooker virtuosity.

De la Salle’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini includes a reeling, dizzying fleetness in Variation 15. Meanwhile, in the darker regions of the once maligned, now celebrated, Fourth Concerto, her slow tempo in the central Largo gives us all of the principal theme’s lugubrious character, making you forget waggish references to Three Blind Mice. For her, every note of Rachmaninov’s distinctive polyphony (Boris Berezovsky regards him as a ‘Russian Bach’) is worth its weight in gold: for once, you hear everything articulated with edge and brilliance in both the First and Second Concertos.

In conclusion this three-CD album provides a wholly individual experience, riding high among the few complete sets of the Concertos and the Rhapsody, notably those by the composer himself and Vladimir Ashkenazy (with both Previn and Haitink): an amazing achievement. I should add that these are ‘live’ recordings, though with never a sneeze or cough in evidence and without even a hint of applause in performances which, for their musical integrity, cry out for a storm of cheers.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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