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Serge RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor Op.28 (1907) [35:28]
Piano Preludes Op.23 Nos. 4-6 (1901-03) [10:35]
Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor Op.36 (1913 rev. 1931) [19:26]
Xiayin Wang (piano)
ec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, USA,18-19 September 2013 (Sonata No.2), 18-19 January 2014 (remainder)
CHANDOS CHAN 10816 [65:36]

Xiayin Wang's first Rachmaninov recital was a Record of the Month for me when I reviewed it in 2012. At the time, I wondered if Chandos had found in her the artist to provide them with a cycle of Rachmaninov's solo piano works. Perhaps with this second disc just such a cycle is slowly progressing. By pairing the two Piano Sonatas on a single disc she is taking head-on some of the most technically and musically demanding repertoire there is. This is phenomenally dynamic and muscular playing - in the true spirit of a latter-day keyboard virtuoso.

David Nice's typically informative liner emphasises the first Sonata's origins as a musical representation of the Faust legend. Most commentators imply that this literary link is no more than a point of departure, Nice finds references in the final work. Certainly Wang plays the piece for maximum dramatic effect. Usually I enjoy this kind of playing but regretfully I have to say this disc is something of a disappointment. Wang's technical playing remains little short of astonishing. Alongside well-loved versions by respected pianists the older versions often sound relatively strained technically and with occasional passages blurred or cautious. Add the detailed and wide-ranging Chandos recording and I am not sure I have ever heard so much of the inner detail registering in these turbulently thick-textured works. So why the dissatisfaction?

Some of the responsibility must lie at the composer's door. The First Sonata in particular is a sprawling profligate work teetering on the edge of too much invention for its own good. That this 'problem' continued over into the Second Sonata is evidenced by Rachmaninov's extensive 1931 revision (the version played here) where textures are simplified and the form condensed. No such revision of the First Sonata occurred so it is down to the performer alone to guide the listener through its potentially bewildering thickets. Taken individually Wang plays any of the many climactic passages superbly - big pianistic gestures confidently dispatched. The problem is that she fails, to my ears, to graduate these across the entire work. By the time the half hour mark is reached I found myself feeling rather punch-drunk with yet another epic climax. This over-playing occurs in the very first bars where Rachmaninov lays out the basic musical motifs; the first marked p answered immediately by a more rhythmical gesture marked just f. Wang's forte is huge - excitingly impressively huge - but giving her almost no dynamic headroom . and there's another 35 minutes to go. Compare say Santiago Rodriguez on Elan to choose one comparison almost at random. He gives little if anything to Wang technically, has a good if not as good recording/instrument, but knows how to pull back from climaxes into passages of gentle reverie and fantasy and save the most titanic playing until last. With him the massive final statement of the Dies Irae in the work's finale is an apocalyptic moment, for Wang it's just very loud . again. Here we have so many mountain peaks we end up on a high plateau gasping for breath.

The previous Rachmaninov disc from Wang was a sequence of shorter pieces albeit they were published as sets. It is recording companies who like to issue them 'complete' - I am not sure how often the composer expected them to be performed that way. The discrete nature of each piece dictates a shorter musical span and permits them a key central passage. That is why both the three Preludes from the Op.23 set and the compact Second Sonata work better here. I am not enough of an expert on the work - and do not have a score - to know whether Wang plays this Second Sonata in its 'pure' 1931 revision or a Horowitz-like hybrid amalgam of both versions. I do still feel that Wang is not as convincing as many of the greats who have recorded this work in her handling of the over-arching musical argument. However her extraordinary precision and articulation, with power in reserve, certainly achieves what the composer sought as far as imposing greater clarity on his piano writing was concerned.

The inclusion of the 4th to 6th Preludes from Op.23 feels rather like a literal make-weight to take the programme past the hour mark. That being said they work rather well in their own right as a miniature suite. Numbers 4 and 6 seem to have a greater sense of relaxed freedom than Wang achieved in the First Sonata especially. The 5th Prelude Alla Marcia lacks either the weight of an Alexeev on Virgin, the feverish intensity of Ponti on Vox, the swagger of Rodriguez on Elan or the wit of a Hayroudinoff also on Chandos to name just a small group of versions I had to hand.

I suspect this is a programme to which Wang will return in the future to give us more considered and nuanced accounts. She remains a formidably talented musician with a big personality but this is not a disc I will return to often.

Nick Barnard