I am not very convinced by the logic of this compilation.
Prokofiev and Shostakovich make a reasonable pair, but there must be
many admirers of their music for whom Scriabin is anathema, and vice
versa. And, if the idea was to present a conspectus of Russian piano
sonatas in the first half of the 20th Century then Rachmaninov
and Stravinsky should have been added. This would not have mattered
so much if all three composers had received outstanding performances,
but alas, only two of them do.
Right from the first sonata, a very early work, Austbo
presents his credentials as a Scriabin interpreter. For all its post-Chopin
leanings, this work already proclaims its author in its menacing rhythmic
counter-melodies and its alternation of euphoria and stasis. Austbo
has the measure of this music’s structure, realising its power without
losing control and allowing its meditative moments to drift without
actually stopping. His control of texture is most impressive; he can
fill the air with trills and then bring out a melody from the midst
of them, and he always seems to know which melodic strand, in the most
teeming textures, is the one we need to hear. So consistent is he that
I feel disinclined to point to any moments in particular. Certain classic
performances of individual sonatas, by the likes of Horowitz and Richter,
will never be unseated (the laser-light which Horowitz beams onto the
"Black Mass" sonata is unique and unapproachable) but I was
sufficiently convinced not to feel the need to seek them out. As a set,
this is as good as we are likely to get.
I listened in chronological order but my initial bewilderment
as to why they had not been issued in that way was countered by two
considerations. Firstly, the second disc has slightly more bloom to
the sound than the first. There’s not much to it and the first is quite
acceptable, but if you dodge back and forth you obviously notice the
difference. Secondly, for those new to the music, each disc presents
a compendium of Scriabin’s development, neatly encapsulated within a
single listening space. Both discs cover the same ground, but with different
However, looking at this as a package for a first-time
buyer, the complete absence of any sort of booklet notes does seem to
me to be serious. Better this than empty waffle, maybe, but this is
a case where helpful guidance can really make a difference. Still, the
performances allow the music to speak for itself. The trouble is, if
you are going to buy a set of 5 CDs, even at a very low price, it is
hardly worthwhile if only two of them are any good. So what about the
McLachlan encompasses the notes of these frequently
complicated works both confidently and comfortably, and his approach
is a basically unfussy, musical one. So far so good, but alas, a glance
at the scores shows how much is left out. The first two pages of no.
3 run the whole gamut of dynamic markings from fortissimo to piano with
some steep diminuendos and one hairpin marking and McLachlan ploughs
through the whole lot at a steady forte, making only a token reduction
in the sound (coupled with an unmarked rallentando) when he reaches
the pianissimo. Prokofiev is no less detailed in the variety of touches
he calls for, with legatos, long notes separated from one another and
some staccatos about which he evidently felt so strongly as to separate
the notes from one another with a rest. Again, McLachlan makes nothing
of all this. When Prokofiev suddenly indicates "p secco" after
a few bars full of legato slurs, I can detect no change of sound or
style. Then, at the pianissimo theme, careful accenting is required
to avoid giving the idea that the first beat of the bar is on what is
actually the second quaver. This risk is far from avoided, and it makes
the music seem banal. At the moderato section, Prokofiev’s "pp
tranquillo" is anything but that and the "semplice e dolce"
theme, wonderfully tender in the right hands, is merely perfunctory.
The sudden drop to piano at the bottom of the first
page of the finale of no. 4 is similarly ignored and in the first movement
of this work McLachlan seems to relate to the music only when it is
loud. Comparison with the Richter version recently issued by BBC Legends
reveals this music to have a range of expression that you would never
imagine if you knew only the McLachlan version. And incidentally, at
the penultimate bar of line three of page 8, my score has g natural,
not g sharp, and Richter’s evidently has, too. The "Andante assai"
of this same sonata has to be broad, but this 8-in-a-bar trudge makes
it a long haul indeed (and why the sudden doubling of the tempo for
a few bars on page 14?). Richter shows that a more forward-moving tempo
is not synonymous with haste.
In a way, performances like this do more damage than
ones that are patently full of splashes and wrong notes, since in that
case anyone can hear that the performer is at fault, while these performances
sound, on one level, perfectly plausible, and will lead those who have
no means of comparison (precisely the public these Brilliant sets are
aimed at, presumably) to suppose that this is just boring, undistinguished
music. Beethoven played in this way tends to shine through; Prokofiev
was not exactly a Beethoven and great care is needed to bring out his
It is true that, from no. 6 onwards, the higher quality
of the music means that something, at least, gets through – it would
take more than good intentions to destroy the "Andante caloroso"
movement of no. 7 – but even so, a comparison with the version of no.
6 recently issued in the "Richter rediscovered" album reveals
the music to have infinitely more to it than you would ever imagine
here. To give just one example, the "Allegretto", in Richter’s
hands, expresses a range of emotion that runs from the grotesque to
the pathetic; McLachlan’s all-the-same approach seems merely dogged.
It is also true that McLachlan seems particularly identified
with no. 9. Often seen as the weaker of the last three sonatas, it actually
sounds here to be the finest of them. Did McLachlan maybe make a speciality
of this one before he decided to take up the whole cycle? I think the
problem is that, at about this time, Olympia engaged this pianist to
record a vast amount of Russian music – there was a Miaskovsky cycle,
I remember - , too much, probably, for him to apply much more than an
all-purpose competence to it all. This all reflects rather sadly on
the ways of the record industry itself. If McLachlan can do better now,
perhaps he should be allowed to show this.
There has been a tendency to look on the Shostakovich
sonatas as fairly expendable compared with the long series of symphonies
and string quartets. However, while the McLachlan Prokofiev leaves one
feeling that this is rather dull music, Colin Stone, with the help of
a recording whose full-blooded presence puts the others in the box in
the shade, but above all with the vitality and conviction of his playing,
reveals them to be well worth knowing. No. 1 (1926) is a fascinating
example of the early "modernist" composer and Stone’s performance
is hard-hitting (but not hard-toned), while not neglecting the quieter
moments. The Second Sonata (1943) is a more "orthodox", almost
neo-classical work, but it is shown here to have a wide-ranging content
and a particularly haunting last movement. As with Austbo’s Scriabin,
Stone leaves you feeling that you do not need to search for comparative
versions, which in this case are not many. Gilels’s version of no. 2
has acquired an enviable legendary status just by remaining unavailable.
I hope to hear it one day. But I am very happy with Stone.
It’s difficult to know what to say, overall. I suppose
you might think that the Scriabin and the Shostakovich in themselves
justify the modest price of the set, but if you do make that decision,
then get what Richter performances of the Prokofiev you can find.