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Wanted: Lazar Berman’s version of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto

I have loved Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto ever since I first heard it in my early teens, and I must have about twenty different CDs of it. My absolute favourite recorded performance of this piece is the CBS Lazar Berman/Claudio Abbado/London Symphony Orchestra version. Early reviewers complained about the “recording balance”, but for me the piano’s the thing and the piano is well to the front. (This was what the reviewers were complaining about.) And Berman plays it like a god.

The fashion nowadays tends to be to play this piece, yes, quite noisily, but basically too gently and carefully, as if vacuum cleaning around sleeping kittens, a state of affairs I hold Sergei Rachmaninoff himself responsible for. He was a fabulous pianist, one of the twentieth century’s best, but he was, I believe, shy about his own concertos, even when playing them. It was as if he couldn’t face going for broke when performing these majestic works (Number Two is also a super-popular piece), because what if people then didn’t like that? So, he would toss them off in a slightly detached albeit pianistically miraculous manner (described now as “aristocratic”), too quietly, too quickly, in a way that didn’t expose his own ego too much. Take it or leave it, folks. No skin off my soul!

Berman doesn’t make that mistake! By God he doesn’t. He storms the heavens, especially in the great first movement cadenza, and in that tempestuous passage near the end full of thunderous bass octaves that they made such a fuss of in that film about the mad Australian piano player played by the bloke who then played Queen Elizabeth I’s Spymaster in Elizabeth.

As Sod’s Law would have it, Lazar Berman’s is about the one recorded performance of this amazing piece of the classical repertoire that is not available currently on CD. It used to be, because about a decade ago I borrowed it from Pimlico library. And, I have it on a disintegrating CBS “cassette”, that technologically grotesque apology for a classical music recording medium. The number of the cassette is, if I’m reading the right bit: MYT 44715. It’s in the CBS Maestro series, and was recorded in 1977. CBS is now owned by Sony, of course.

Berman either became very fat and died of too much Russian-type drinking, or he is now very fat and will soon die of too much drinking, I forget which. Maybe this complicated his professional relationships, with e.g. the Sony Corporation, and keeping this performance available may have been too much bother for them. Or maybe Sony just didn’t like that he mostly recorded for Deutsche Grammophon. Or maybe those damn critics with their poor recorded balance nonsense have caused all those classical music sheep out there who have to read a critic before they know what they think not to want this wonderful performance.

A year or two back, BBC Radio Three did a “Which is the best version?” spot on CD Review, choosing, inevitably, Martha Argerich on Philips, which is very good I do admit, although personally I don’t care for the recorded balance – you can’t hear the piano clearly enough. But amazingly, the Berman version was mentioned favourably, even though it’s not now available. This is not something CD review does on regular basis and is high praise. At last, I thought. Maybe now they’ll reissue it. But no, still nothing doing.

The Internet is my obvious answer. But I’m not the brightest button on the corduroy jacket when it comes to this Internet stuff. I can write okay, but when I surf I tend to sink. I’m still paying by the minute for my phone calls, God help me. So, if anyone out there likes me, and also understands the Internet, please, please, get on your electric surfboard and find this CD for me! My limit is about £25. Preferred price: £0, from someone wanting to get some other personal preoccupation mentioned on Samizdata. In my opinion, the libertarian meta-context definitely includes discussion of personal preoccupations.

It doesn’t have to be an original Sony or CBS CD. A CD copy would do fine. (I still have the notes from my cassette.) I can’t believe, given that this CD is unavailable in the shops and that I’ve already paid for the cassette, that any sane person in the music business could object to that. Course not.

(There’s also a Berman performance of Rachmaninoff PC3 done live with Leonard Bernstein and the NYPO, which may still be available if you also buy a ton of other Bernstein performances, but I can’t go to about £150 for all of that, much as I’m tempted. I’ve not heard this, but an original or copy of that CD would also be extremely welcome. Same terms as above.)

Email me at brian@libertarian.co.uk if you can help.

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