The concept of the internet phenomenon - someone who gets their big break through social media or YouTube - is a familiar one, generally speaking. Less so in the Classical field, perhaps, but at over 35 million views, Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova’s live recording of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto in the Royal Concertgebouw with the North West German Philharmonic under Martin Panteleev has become the most watched Classical concerto on YouTube with, at the time of writing, some 37 mllion views. So let’s see if we can add a few more:
Before we get to Fedorova’s Channel Classics disc, it is worthwhile noting Fedorova’s written introduction to these performances, which focuses on the Ukraine since February 24, 2022. She has played over 20 benefit concert for Ukraine, raising over half a million Euros for humanitarian organisations; together with her husband, she has started a non-profit organisation for musicians who have fled to the Netherlands under the auspices of the Davidsbündler Music Academy. In relation to this disc, Fedorova says:
Nowadays I feel that playing Rachmaninov is even more relevant than ever. He himself was a victim of the Russian government as he was forced to flee his homeland together with his family during the Revolution in 1917 and he spent the rest of his life living in the US.
It is daring indeed to begin with the Fourth Piano Concerto, the least performed of the four and one in which one recording has dominated the catalogue for decades - that by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Fedorova has her reasons:
Rachmaninov wrote his Fourth Piano Concerto nine years after emigraing ... For me, it represents the change of the era, a farewell to the past and a dive into a quite terrifying future. Playing the Second Piano Concerto, however, does make me think of a phoenix. It represents rebirth and resurrection of the spirit, hope and light. Something we need so much nowadays. This is why the album starts with Piano Concerto No. 4 and ends with Piano Concerto No. 2.
But Fedorova has her own individuality, and creates her own magic. Here’s the first movement, with Fedorova and the conductor of the St Gallen Symphony Orchestra, Modestas Pitrenas, absolutely on the same page. I like how Fedorova allows us to hear how typical Rachmaninov tropes permeate the score, and yet she simultaneously is able to show us the freshness of invention of this concerto. Here’s the frst movement:
This is an elusive piece, and Fedorova’s grasp of the fantastical is beyond compare - achieved through miraculously fluent playing. And when it comes to the interior feelings of the second movement (a Largo), with those bitter-sweet turns of harmony, Fedorova creates real magic. Interesting, too, how Pitrenas encourages just the right string balance and weight. And I have to say I find the end of the movement more magical than Michelangeli's famous version:
The finale in Fedorova and Pirenas’ performance is a miracle, not just for the sheer virtuosity of all concerned, but for the way the players capture its essence. The more quirky moments have masses of character; Fedorova injects a sense of play at times, while lyricism also becomes a pronounced part of the mix:
There is an alternative performance by Fedorova of the Fourth Concerto on YouTube, in the Concertgebouw with the North West German Philharmonic under Marzena Diakun (curently standing at around 52,000 views):
When it comes to the Second Concerto, we are on far more familiar territory. But this is no over-emoted, indulgent account. The first movement tends towards the light-footed. It is sensitive yet there is an underlay of glowering power. It certainly made this jaded old hack hear this ole war horse anew, and for that I am forever grateful. The performance is notable not only for Fedorova’s attention to the piano part (delineation is stunning, one can hear all the different lines with perfect clarity) but also for the orchesral contribution, carefully moulded by Pitrenas. A special mention perhaps for the solo horn of the St Gallen orchesra, whose solo late on in the movement is so beautifully done:
Just that little bit of restraint is what makes Fedorova and Pitrenas’ slow movement so very beautiful - plus the woodwind contributions are magnificent. Channel Classics' recording, indcidentally, is amazing, allowing every detail to come through both here and, for that matter, everywhere else on the disc:
The finale exudes character and energy (follow the link to the YouTube video). Extrovert but never ever over-emoted, it is underlined by a rock-solid sense of pulse and rhythm from both soloist and conductor. Moments of relaxation of tension are perfectly judged - one can almost hear the music is ready to animate again at any second.
This is highly significant, intelligent Rachmaninov playing from Fedorova, a pianist who is clearly a major, major talent. Lucky is the person who comes to these pieces for the first time via these performances.