It is perhaps almost too obvious to deserve comment, but the first thought I had listening to this new recording of the two Rachmaninov Piano Sonatas, was how much the piano writing owed to Franz Liszt, whose 200thanniversary was celebrated this year in part by the final release of Liszt’s complete piano works on 98 CDs, performed, like this Rachmaninov disc, by Melbourne-born Leslie Howard. Liszt was among the first composers to blur the distinction between thematic and textural material, and in this Rachmaninov is very much his disciple, especially in these two Sonatas—in fact, the main themes of both works are astonishingly simple, while the unfolding musical arguments are anything but. The pianistic gestures are familiar from his better-known Piano Concertos, but without the orchestra to provide context Rachmaninov’s writing becomes subtler, more contrapuntal, to the extent of sometimes recalling his great predecessor, Balakirev. I have always had a fondness for the First Sonata, and hearing them side-by-side confirmed this predilection, but the Second Sonata—which Howard plays in its unedited, original version—is a stunningly grand work nonetheless. Both are cast in a fairly traditional three-movement form, with a closely-argued and expansive first movement, a broad song-like slow middle movement, and a furious Finale, but within this straight-forward seeming architecture, Rachmaninov manages to fascinate the listener with digressive stretches of filigree, huge expressive melodic arches, and obsessive intervallic gestures, to the extent that one can feel exhausted at the close—I don’t know that I would often listen to both Sonatas one after the other. The well-known cartoon on the CD cover, of the inscrutable Rachmaninov and his famously enormous hands, reminds us that he performed both works himself; unsurprisingly, the Sonatas are transcendentally difficult technically. Leslie Howard is more than equal to these truly scary demands, and manages to combine ferocious intensity with an exquisitely lyrical tenderness.
The CD is completed by a three piano pieces which, although not designated by Rachmaninov as a set, work beautifully together, and a piano transcription of the valedictory Nunc Dimittis section from his All-Night Vigil, aka the Vespers. After the extended and complex arguments of the two Sonatas, these more concentrated works strike the listener as gems—not a note too many. Well programmed, brilliantly executed, this is an altogether admirable release.