It's not uncommon for me to listen to lots of different recordings and interpretations of the same work. However, nothing can compare to the number of different recordings of Rachmaninov's 2nd piano concerto I've listened to. If I come across a recording of Rach 2 I haven't heard before, I just HAVE to listen to it. And then, preferably, compare it with all the other Rach 2 recordings I know of.
The following are some of the pianists I've heard play Rach 2:
These are merely the recordings I can remember of the top of my head, and which left an impression on me. I find comparing them fascinating - especially 'vintage' recordings versus modern ones. I usually prefer the vintage recordings in every respect, especially with regards to the piano tone. In old recordings the piano sound is warmer and closer. In modern recordings the piano often sounds harsh, percussive and distant, and you can barely hear it over the orchestra. Gavrilov's recording is one of the worst examples of this, which is unfortunate since I admire his interpretation - it has a slightly out-of-control quality I find exhilarating. Valentina Lisitsa's recording suffers from a similar production problem: it's a superb recording of the orchestra, in which you can hear details notably lacking in other recordings - pizzicato, pianissimo strings, and very enthusiastic timpani - but very little piano!
Here are my 'top three' recordings of Rach 2:
There is a curious story attached to this recording. I originally heard Ashkenazy's recording with, I think, Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam. I hated it. The piano sounded awful.
I happened to come across a recording on Spotify recently with 'Andre Previn and Ashkenazy' listed as the artists. Unfortunately it didn't say who was the pianist and who the conductor. I searched in vain for the recording (a Decca Ovation: Rach 2 coupled with the Paganini Rhapsody). Eventually, I figured out that it could only be Ashkenazy playing, with Previn conducting the LSO. The recording is on Youtube, unfortunately chopped up into bits, but someone has put them all in this playlist for easy listening.
Ashkenazy's technique is flawless, and his interpretation incredibly sensitive. I really think Ashkenazy understands Rachmaninov better than anyone. The production is fantastic: the orchestra sounds great, but in no way swamps the piano, which has a beautiful tone and perfect clarity. Many recordings also lack the 'oomph' which Ashkenazy gives this concerto, and I do like a bit of oomph.
I first heard Van Cliburn's Rach 2 on
Youtube and fell in love with his interpretation immediately; it's so
warm and full of love for and understanding of the music. Cliburn takes
all 3 movements a lot slower than is the norm, and I particularly admire
this. His interpretation is romantic without being too sentimental.
Above all, the recording - although old - is superb, and the piano
crystal clear above the orchestra, which is something I look for in any
concerto recording (and which is sadly lacking in many modern
recordings.) This is my favorite version aside from Rachmaninov's own.
Before I go on, I should explain that there are actually 2 recordings of Rachmaninov himself playing Rach 2. Although almost identical in interpretation, the sound quality does differ a little: as one would expect, the (surprisingly rare) 1929 recording is somewhat higher quality than the 1927 recording.
Rachmaninov takes his own concerto incredibly fast. There's nothing wrong with this, and if I had Rachmaninov's technique I'd probably do the same, but I prefer the way Van Cliburn wallows in the music. However, aside from the tempo this recording is by far my favorite. Two things make it stand out particularly: the pedalless candenza (to date I have heard only one other pianist play the cadenza without pedal), and the fast 'Alla Marcia'. Pianists usually take this section way too slow (in my opinion), and it gets very laboured, detracting from the melody the orchestra plays underneath.
One of the things that distinguishes my 'top three' Rach 2 recordings from the rest is the absolute clarity of the piano part. Despite the low audio quality, there is still more piano detail audible in Rachmaninov's recording of Rach 2 than I have heard on many modern recordings. I don't know what they do differently these days, but the piano is always swamped by the orchestra. Perhaps there is also
the factor of technique - the clear, ambidextrous and under-pedalled style of playing which was prevalent during the earlier half of the 20th century, and of which Rachmaninov was the supreme example, is no longer fashionable. While there are still some more modern pianists who employ this technique, they are getting rarer and rarer, as is actually hearing the left hand in a recording of Rach 2. Coincidence? I think not.
Runners up include:
Yefim Bronfman - when I first started learning Rach 2, I hunted around for ages for the 'perfect' recording to buy. I was specifically looking for a modern recording, since I wanted to be able to play along with it and many of the older recordings are a slightly lower pitch. I chose Bronfman's due to the superb production. His technique is absolutely flawless, but the interpretation isn't particularly interesting.
Alexander Gavrylyuk - one of my favorite young pianists. His interpretation is original and beautiful, but I can't seem to get hold of the recording anywhere - all I can find is a couple of excerpts on youtube. I love the clarity of his playing. As I mentioned earlier, that kind of technique is rare in modern pianists.
Garrick Ohlsson - a really brilliant pianist I didn't even know about before I went to a concert where he played a Beethoven concerto. His recording of Rach 2 (which I can only find samples of on Amazon) is excellent. Listen to the sample of the final movement...!!!