Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Sonata No. 1 in D minor Op. 28 (1907) [35.43]
Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op 36 (1913) [27.51]
Three piano pieces (1917) (Andante ma non troppo [3.12]; Oriental sketch [2.01]; Fragments [2.30])
Nunc dimittis Op 37 No. 5 [3.40]
Leslie Howard (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 21-23 September 2009
MELBA MR301127 [75.23]

For this recital Leslie Howard elects to play the hugely difficult 1913 version of Rachmaninov’s second sonata. It keeps company with the long and technically demanding first sonata and a number of short encores. Howard’s programme notes are detailed, interesting and very informative.

Rachmaninov’s first sonata has not taken off in the concert hall in quite the same way as the second. It requires huge stamina and a big technique - something which may put some pianists off performing it - but it is a very appealing work full of Rachmaninov’s long, melancholy melodies and richly coloured textures. The three movements are based on the characters of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles respectively. Howard does a good job navigating his way through Rachmaninov’s dense pianistic textures in the opening Allegro moderato, and brings out the brooding, atmospheric quality of the work. The melodies emerge in an organic way from the heavily embroidered textures and are full of passion and shimmering, nervous energy. The development section was particularly impressive and something of a technical tour de force. There were some nice tonal contrasts and nuanced phrasing in the lyrical Lento. The build up of tension and passion in the more agitated central section was particularly impressive. Howard brought considerable rhythmic drive and impetus to the Allegro molto finale before driving the work to an exhilarating conclusion.

The original version of Rachmaninov’s second sonata is something of a war-horse and a popular choice for young pianists seeking to impress juries at international piano competitions. Howard’s performance of the opening Allegro agitato was big and muscular full of rhythmic impetus and a wide range of tone colour. The passage-work was handled well but I thought he could perhaps have done a little more to layer and delineate the dense textures. Howard’s tone in the Lento was warm and full and there was some nice phrasing. That said, I thought this movement lacked the wonderful range of tone colour and magical allure which Horowitz brings to the work. Howard’s performance of the last movement was disappointing with the textures coming across as heavy and ponderous. There was some breaking of the line in the final iteration of the lyrical second theme and lacklustre and untidy passage-work in the coda.

The Three Pieces from 1917 are the last pieces Rachmaninov wrote before leaving Russia. They are uncharacteristic and experimental works. The opening Andante ma non troppo was not published until thirty years after the composer’s death and is the weakest of the three lacking the rhythmic interest of the Oriental sketch with its motoric figurations or the harmonic and nostalgic beauty of the third. Howard gives an accomplished and polished account and makes a convincing case for performing them as a set.

The recital concludes with Rachmaninov’s transcription of the Nunc dimittis from his Vespers. The performance is stately and dignified although I was not convinced that he completely captured the work’s mystical qualities.

Robert Beattie

Full of passion and shimmering, nervous energy.