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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Sonata No 1 in D minor Op 28 (1907)
Joyce Hatto (Piano)
Recorded at the Concert Artist Studios, January 1996 and March 1999
CONCERT ARTIST/FIDELIO CACD 9129-2 [72.27]

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Joyce Hatto’s latest Russian disc to be issued in her immense recording undertaking for Concert Artist harnesses an established nineteenth century masterpiece to an early twentieth century problem child. Rachmaninov’s First Piano Sonata caused the composer characteristic doubt even as it was being completed – he called it "wild and interminable" and about forty-five minutes long, interestingly adding that the idea behind it was a study in "three contrasting types from a literary work." The programmatic nature of the sonata wasn’t disclosed though one knows from other works how acutely engaged he was in other literary and visual stimuli (an apt analogue, in that respect, to the Hartmann-inspired Pictures at an Exhibition). The 1908 revision of the First Sonata following its premiere was extensive – 200 bars were cut and there was significant reworking.

It has always proved a challenge for a pianist, not least in its powerful demands and occasionally discursive material. Joyce Hatto, as might be expected of one whose sovereignty over Russian repertoire is so profound and pronounced, rises to these challenges with eviscerating power, utter command and a reservoir of poetic refinement. She is perfectly attuned to Rachmaninov’s grand flourishes, fuses poetic gesture with technical eloquence and memorably manages to convince us that the work’s teeming life can, in a great performance, take on unexpected shape and thematic direction through her bravura imagination and mastery of long term span. Thus the sonata seems infinitely less meandering and rhetoric laden in her hands, far more structured and emotionally compelling – indeed fissure laden – than one might have expected. This is the kind of performance that draws one into the density and the drive of this frequently teeming work. For all that she is a formidable technician she is equally a deeply poetic interpreter and the symphonic-concerto aspirations of the work are here simply swept up into the vortex of its interior life. Because Hatto never succumbs to the temptation for shallow display – she is careful not to force even at the most vertiginous climaxes, though these are still powerful enough – and she ensures that her leading line is constantly audible and alive, not subsumed into the thicket of the textures. The sometimes prolix demands of the opening Allegro moderato are dealt with frequently pealing virtuosity, tempi carefully on the move; mobility and poetic insight abound. The rippling movement of the Lento sees Hatto’s romantic tracery at its fullest and most developed – there is sensitivity but also tenacity in the way she delineates the line – stressing its vocal impress and its warmth. The dramatic insistence of the concluding Allegro molto, the weakest of the three movements in terms of length and thematic material, is nevertheless splendidly conveyed. But so too is the reflective nostalgia, the perfectly weighted moments of emotional reprieve before she embarks on the furiously combustible conclusive bars. If you have encountered Rachmaninov’s Sonata before and have found it brittle and aspiring too implacably toward the grandiose then try this performance. Not all of the manifest problems of the work can be solved or hidden, even in a great performance, such as this is, but equally the work can take on a new character and profile and stand revealed as a greater work than one had believed it to be.

After the dramatic heroism of the sonata we have an unusually introspective and complex view of Pictures at an Exhibition. Hatto announces her priorities at the outset in the first promenade – deliberate, "cautious" as if yet unsure of the emotional direction of the music, exploring melody and tonal implications with almost dispassionate concern; not jaunty at all – on the contrary this promenade exemplifies the rise and fall, the depth and height of sonority and a gathering weight of utterance leading onto the deliberate grotesquerie of Gnomus, which she explores with decisive characterisation. The Old Castle is full of insinuating interiority, Hatto exposing the nagging left hand with excellently weighted coldness, and the tracery of Les Tuileries viciously contrasted with the thick chords and implacable advance of Bydlo. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks is the better for not being hard driven and Limoges is full of proto-Gershwinian chatter in this performance. In the Catacombs she summons up reserves of visceral chill, Baba-Yaga is fearsome and the ending not cloaked in a halo of pedal (as it sometimes can be) and the Great Gate of Kiev gathers itself in tumultuous grandeur, the final peroration still observing dynamic gradation.

This is a frequently spellbindingly fine disc and it deserves wide currency. In terms of production values and performance this is in the alpha league.

Jonathan Woolf

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