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Anna Fedorova performing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos 1, 2, and 4

10-27-2022 | By Rushton Paul | Issue 124

Ukranian pianist Anna Fedorova is a remarkable talent. She is right in the top of my list for outstanding performers in recent years. I've written about her solo-piano and chamber music recordings with Channel Classics here, here, and here. But now she is expanding her recorded repertoire to include some of the most challenging pieces for piano and orchestra. And the results are compelling.

Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1, Preludes, Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Anna Fedorova, Sinfoniorchester St. Gallen, Modestas Pitranas, conductor. Channel Classics 2019 (DXD) HERE

Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos Nos. 2 & 4 - Anna Fedorova, Sinfoniorchester St. Gallen, Modestas Pitranas, conductor. Channel Classics 2021 (DXD) HERE

With over 35 million views, Anna Fedorova's live performance of Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto is the most viewed classical concerto video on YouTube. And now we have from Channel Classics the the long-awaited studio recording of this beloved concerto, together with Rachmaninoff's 4th Piano Concerto.

Anna's Rachmaninoff cycle began in 2020 with Piano Concerto No. 1 (also with Sinfonieorchester St. Gallen and Modestas Pitrenas, conductor). Release of the 3rd Piano Concerto is expected in the spring of 2023 to complete the cycle.

Fedorova describes her first Rachmaninoff album as "like taking an express train through the life of Rachmaninoff." It begins with the 1st Piano Concerto, written when Rachmaninoff was only 18. He later revised it in his 40s before emigrating from Russian to America and concludes with the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini.

At the time of writing the 1st Piano Concerto, Anna relates in her interview video below, "He was still just a boy, and it was amazing what he could write when he was only 18—his opus 1. In general, the 1st Piano Concerto is so rich and fantastic in colors and harmony. It might be one of the most amazing pieces he ever wrote.

"Then we have 4 preludes, each one of the preludes is like a little sketch of Rachmaninoff's life, the inside of the Rachmaninoff soul. They are very short, but each one is like its own world. And then we have the Paganini Rhapsody which Rachmaninoff wrote at the very end of his life."

Adrian Quanjer has written a most insightful article about Anna Fedorova's Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto performances. I highly recommend you reading his complete article, HERE. To offer just a taste, in hope these will entice you to read the article itself, let me quote his opening thoughts:

"In her first instalment of a projected survey of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos, Anna Fedorova hugely surprised me, and surely many others, with a reading of the first piano concerto that surpassed quite a few existing recordings by pianists of note. This follow-on release notably including the ever-so-popular Second Concerto hits the moon as well. What makes Anna so very special, is the way she combines fabulous technique with a highly developed sense of empathy, thus creating that magical spell hard to find elsewhere."

This is a summary in which I completely agree.

Anna Fedorova is a deeply empathetic musician. Her performances are never bravura just for the sake of showing off technical skills, which she has aplenty. No, her performances dig more deeply into the meaning of the music with a strong affinity to revealing the emotions at play. And yet her performances are filled with intelligence. Listening to one of her recordings is like a conversation with your favorite friend who brings such deep insight to your thoughts and psychological state. She does this with the music she performs and we are allowed to come along for the conversation.

The First Piano Concerto is undoubtedly one of the most difficult compositions for pianists, powerful, complex and full of lyricism, it is a work of emotional extremes. Fedorova's opening hits all of the power marks one might hope for. But then she moves into the contemplative, lyrical sections with thoughtful elegance and grace. She is reflective yet never over-indulgent. The shimmering passages at 3:30 are just that in her hands—elegant, shimmering, a pure delight. Her facility is never-ending. 

She follows the concerto with a selection of four Preludes, beautifully capturing the Russian melancholy of the F Sharp Minor Prelude and lyrical joy of the B Flat Major, both from Op 23. Her technique is fluent but never facile—just listen to the delicate clarity of the G Sharp Minor Prelude, Op 32.

The performances on this album are lyrical poetry, but without mushy slushy sentimental undertones often given to music of the late Romantics. A tribute to Fedorova, conductor Modestas Pitranas, and the Sinfoniorchester St. Gallen. Bravo!

Recording session for First Piano Concerto. L-R: Jared Sacks, Anna Fedorova, Modestas Pitranas.

The Second Piano Concerto is brought to us by the same performers working together again two years after the first. And I think it is a triumph for all involved.

Of the Rachmaninoff piano concertos, the Second is the most famous, most well-loved. It has themes that simply stay in one's head. Neither the First nor the Fourth have the same general audience appeal and impact. While the Third Piano Concerto, thanks to its melodic theme, many virtuoso passages, and a heroic finale is a favorite of young pianists at piano competitions, it does not have the same audience appeal of the Second. (Fedorova will be recording the Third for release in the near future, I'm told.)

As the reviewer in Luister Magazine writes, "Fedorova convinces with everything: with her thoughtful tempi, richly varied dynamics, broad, breathing lines, beautiful phrasing and elaboration down to the smallest details. As a result, the listener becomes completely captivated by her powerful and lyrical playing and begins to listen to the familiar passages with renewed interest. The collaboration with the St. Gallen Symphony Orchestra is exemplary.”

This is as fine and engaging a performance of the Second as I have in my music library. Anna Fedorova plays with great intimacy, without ever bringing her virtuosity to the fore, yet that technical skill clearly is always underlying what she is doing else we would not be as enraptured as we are with the performance. In her humble approach she is literally a "servant of the work" for which we can be forever grateful.

At the recording session for Piano Concerto No. 2

In case you are not aware, Anna Fedorova is the pianist in residence for the Concertgebouw in addition to her schedule of performance with other groups, her solo recitals and teaching. Her 2013 live performance of the 2nd Piano Concerto with the Concertgebouw has become the most watched classical concerto on YouTube, with over 36 million views, according to the liner notes for the album. 

In response to the horrific events unfolding in Ukraine in February, 2022, Anna Fedorova initiated of one of the first large scale benefit concerts held for her country. It was held in the main hall of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and was broadcast on national radio and TV. It was recognized in various international publications for bringing in over 111,000€ in humanitarian aid. She is committed to continuing her fundraising for the benefit of victims of the war and regularly collaborates with other artists in this effort.