Pianist Xiayin Wang’s previous outing for Chandos
so impressed me I made it one of my 2011 discs of the year. No surprise therefore that I should be looking forward to another disc from the same creative and technical team and a pleasure to report that all my hopes and expectations are fulfilled. This new offering is a superb disc on every front; well-programmed, excellent engineering and production values all backing up piano playing and music-making of stellar quality.
From the very first listen it was clear that this was a very good disc indeed but its exceptional quality impinged on me with each repeated hearing. This is because Wang does everything so very very well that at first the sheer technique and musicianlyness of her playing slips you by. There are many valid approaches to Rachmaninoff’s glorious keyboard music and although Wang embraces the grand and rhetorical passages to full effect her great strength is not to overstate the big gestures or beat her instrument into submission. She wears her phenomenal technique with such unassuming ease that is only when you compare her playing to other major international artists you realise that where they bluster and fudge she is all clarity and layered control. Time and again throughout the programme this is clear but take one simple example – the E minor Presto movement, the 4th
of the Op.16 Moments Musicaux. This is a fascinating and transitional set with the twenty-three year old Rachmaninoff beginning to create a sound world uniquely his own. He moves from music of a – albeit sophisticated – salon nature to passages that presage the brooding dark-hued tone paintings of his maturity. This Presto is a surging, stormy showpiece with streams of running figurations over which the melody heroically sings. Wang is totally at ease with the subtle ebb and flow this music requires but the real brilliance is in the clarity of the inner lines with every note perfectly etched, balanced and articulate. I have a not wholly rational attachment to Michael Ponti’s traversal of the complete Rachmaninoff piano works from their Vox-Turnabout LP days. I still enjoy the sheer drama of his playing but he sounds musically generalised and technically challenged in ways that Wang brushes away. Even such formidable players as Dmitri Aleexev on Virgin wrestle with the complexity of Rachmaninoff’s unforgiving writing. Taken together this Op.16 set is substantial running to nearly half an hour’s music. Wang gives the most convincing performance of this highly enjoyable set that I have ever heard.
Praise at this point too for the programme playing. Presenting three significant works (or sets) which span nearly forty years of the composer’s life in chronological order does give the listener a fascinating sense of the creative arc from salon-pictorial to cerebral abstraction via the high romance of the Études-tableaux Op.33. David Nice in his liner note is predictably insightful on both musical and psychological levels. By title alone this Op.33 set of eight pieces – although numbered up to nine, number four was removed and reworked as number six of the companion Op.39 set – would seem to imply some kind of pictures in sound. Rachmaninoff’s progression as a composer is evidenced in the way this shorter cycle – just twenty three or so minutes in Wang’s performance – feels like a substantially ‘bigger’ work than the discursive Moments musicaux. Wang has power to spare but the real pleasure to be had here again is in the beauty and control of her playing. Take the very opening on the first Étude; the left hand accompaniment is little short of a masterclass in voicing contrasting lines from stomping strong beats to brightly bouncing ‘off’ beats supporting a long-breathed lyrical melody. Counter melodies and subtleties of the contrapuntal writing emerge as rarely before but without any sense of clinical dissection. Competition here is of course even stronger than in the slightly rarer early cycle and to single out any performance as the best of all seems both foolish and pointless. Suffice to say Wang takes her rightful place in the very highest echelons of excellence. Possibly, just possibly, I might choose to turn to performances longer on sheer theatrical splendour but that is my own personal taste.
All of the qualities previously mentioned are of particular value in the relatively late Variations on as theme of Corelli Op.42. The great stock-pot of Rachmaninoff’s inspiration has been reducing down ever further the sheer fecundity of his writing. The composer might have apologised to an early listener that “when I sit down to write, it does not come to me as easily … as in former years” but what we have instead is writing pared back to emotional and musical essentials. Performing time is further condensed to the sub-eighteen minute mark. Yet into this Rachmaninoff crams a theme, some nineteen variations, an Intermezzo and a Coda. With the longest – Variation XV – just managing to scrape past the minute and a half point, this is Rachmaninoff at his tersest yet still with a remarkable range of keyboard colour and emotion. The brevity, however, is why they have never gained the popularity his longer more verbose, sometimes indulgent works have. Again Wang is a remarkable guide. Rather than fragmentary, the through line of groups of variations are brilliantly defined and the range of expression from surging Variation VII to water-colour miniaturist of Variation IX is encompassed without contrivance or artifice. Credit to the piano – a Steinway one assumes since Wang’s biography says she is ‘a Steinway Artist’ - for having an action that allows Wang to articulate the repeated note groups of Variation XIII – another example of her staggeringly clean technique. Super fine though the rest of the disc is, this set of Variations crowns the lot with a rendition where every element of the performance seems near ideal.
As mentioned earlier, the engineering here is very good – the piano is caught with a warm yet clear sound in an ideal acoustic using Chandos’ now standard 24-bit resolution recording techniques. Playing time is generous and the liner informative. For all their comprehensive editions, curiously Chandos have never produced a coherent collection from a single pianist of Rachmaninoff’s solo piano works. I suppose the fact that Hyperion rather stole the march on them by recording house pianist Howard Shelley in just such a cycle means that the project never took wing. In Xiayin Wang they might just have found the player to do justice to it. A disc of exceptional quality.