“I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien,” complained Sergei Rachmaninov in a 1939 interview. “I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new.” The last of the Russian Romantics, his scores are all too easily dismissed for their “gushing tunes” (Eric Blom, 1954), yet the enduring popularity of his music is undeniable, hence a sold out pair of concerts by the Orchestre de Paris at the centre of the Philharmonie's Rachmaninov Weekend where all four piano concertos were scheduled.

Denis Matsuev © Columbia Artists
Denis Matsuev
© Columbia Artists

Two concerts, four concertos – plus the Paganini Variations – and three pianists to spread the workload. But what different pianists! Behzod Abduraimov and Nikolai Lugansky share Sunday's programme, but in this first concert Denis Matsuev shouldered the burden alone, performing the titanic Third and the curious Fourth. This final concerto was the first work Rachmaninov wrote after he settled in the United States, following his self-imposed exile from Russia, but he withdrew it soon afterwards, revising it in 1941 (the version performed here). It's a strange work, never quite opening up those “gushing tunes” of the earlier works, never quite gelling.

During his lifetime, Rachmaninov was revered as an outstanding pianist and recorded all four of his concertos with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Pianists should not imitate, of course, but find their own way with the scores. However, although the opening of the Piano Concerto no. 4 in G minor is marked pesante, the composer could hardly have envisaged the way Matsuev bludgeoned these chords, thumping the keys so aggressively. It's no wonder the piano needed extensive retuning during the interval. There's no denying Matsuev's technical wizardry, rattling off the faster passagework with fleet fingers, but it was all so relentless in attack. Even in the nostalgic central Largo – the theme reminiscent of the music hall song Two Lovely Black Eyes – Matsuev rarely reached “tender” on the dynamic scale.

Temperamentally, the Third Concerto suited Matsuev better. He was more prepared to hold back the decibels in the long first movement, although the ruminative solo sections were dragged out, milked for all their worth. But the cadenza was battered to within an inch of its life and the sensitive woodwinds conversations which followed were ignored by the pianist. Stanislav Kochanovsky and the Paris strings set up the most gorgeous pillow of sound to open the Intermezzo, into which Matsuev crashed insensitively. A work like the Third is indestructible, though, and Matsuev's pianism certainly thrilled plenty in the hall. Best of all was his encore, an account of the A minor Étude-Tableau which demonstrated that he can do poetry after all.

Before the two concertos, Kochanovsky had a chance to show off what the Orchestre de Paris can do in Rachmaninov's early symphonic poem, The Rock. Inscribed with lines from Mikhail Lermontov, it's an atmospheric rather than a dramatic piece and Kochanovsky immediately drew out its brooding nature, double basses and contrabassoon groaning their despair before Vincent Lucas' flute solo was airily launched. This hall allows every detail to register and – immaculately balanced by Kochanovsky's unfussy conducting – the performance glistened and growled. Stravinsky's famous quote about the composer could equally apply to this work: “a six and a half foot scowl”. Here's to fewer scowls in the second instalment of this Rachmaninov Weekend.

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