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Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Complete Piano Works - Volume 1
Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op. 42 [18:10]
Sonata No.2, Op.36 (1931 version) [22:12]
Moments Musicaux, Op. 16 [31:51]
Morceaux de Salon, Op. 10 [31:37]
Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39 [41:30]
Artur Pizarro (piano)
rec. Studio Odradek, Lawrence, Kansas, 2013/14
ODRADEK ODRCD315 [72:19 + 73:07]

This pair of CDs is the first instalment of a complete edition of Rachmaninoff’s music for solo piano. This will run to seven CDs to include the numerous transcriptions of other composers’ music. The entire scheme for the CDs is included in the track-listings in this issue and even the programme notes cover all the pieces yet to come. The pianist writes in the booklet of the music’s “emotional, personal” meaning for him, and his view that there is “no easy category in which to neatly fit” this composer. He says that “we don’t know as much of his piano music as we think we do.”

So perhaps it is to challenge our assumption that we know what Rachmaninoff is like that we begin at the end. The first disc opens with the last of Rachmaninoff’s solo works, the great Corelli Variations, which is more neo-classical than romantic in style. Far from his more emotional and expansive manner, each jewel-like variation is quite brief, so that he can pack the theme plus twenty variations and a coda into just over eighteen minutes. He told his friend and fellow composer Medtner that he had played it fifteen times in concert, but had still not given a complete performance. He would leave out variations depending on the coughing — and thus the assumed interest — of the audience, such that his fewest inclusions were just ten variations and his most eighteen. This might give us the composer’s own licence to use the remote control to do the same, except that the whole work is given one track only, with each variation given an index point. This is fine if you have a player that can access them but in truth you won’t want to leave any out, for Pizarro plays the work in a single sweep while precisely delineating each variation along the journey.

From there we are plunged into the turbulent world of the Second Sonata in its revised form of 1931. Horowitz complained that the truncated revision was a bit brutal, and the composer encouraged him to make his own conflation of the two scores. That Horowitz version is sometimes still heard on disc - by Yevgeny Sudbin on BIS SACD-1518 for example, and Nicolai Lugansky on Na´ve AM-208, though they both make further changes to those of Horowitz. Recently some pianists like Leslie Howard on Melba have returned to the earlier version. It seems an omission that, since everything else is to be included, this edition cannot make room for both the original and the revised versions of the Second Sonata.

To judge from what we have here, that fuller version of 1913 would be welcome in Pizarro’s hands, for he has great command of the sonata’s challenges, and a heaven-storming romantic way with the music. This can be heard not least in the glorious pealing of Rachmaninoff’s trademark bell sounds in the first movement, when it seems the vast Moscow sky resounds with their clangour. He opens the slow movement exquisitely too, with all the tender poetry we associate with the Russian master’s lyrical writing. Pizarro sounds almost lost in reverie here, but always maintains a beautiful line and sense of the music’s direction. In the finale there is plenty of barnstorming virtuosity, but he is not too headlong, making enough space for the lyrical interludes. He takes 6:09 over the movement compared to Wang’s 5:11 on her recent Chandos account of this version of the work. But if you want the most notes to the minute, you must go back to Alexis Weissenberg’s unbelievable DG (427 499-2) account of sonatas 1 and 2 from 1989, where this finale is despatched in 4:32.

It is clear from the listings of the groups of shorter pieces of Op.10 and Op.16 that Pizarro knows this material well, as well as the composer’s own recordings of some of them. Thus he opts for the 1940 revisions of both the Allegretto Op.16 No.2 and Humoresque Op.10 No.5, and lists the Barcarolle, Op.10 No.3 as being “as rec. by the composer”. Presumably there are some textual differences between the score and Rachmaninoff’s own recording of that Barcarolle, and Pizarro adopts those changes here - though the booklet is silent on all these matters, alas. These pieces are very affectionately played, not weighed down with more significance than they can bear – the title “Morceaux de Salon” perfectly captures the charms of the Op.10 pieces. The Humoresque has dazzlingly fingerwork, almost approaching the composer’s own dexterity; in fact the timings are almost the same: Pizarro taking 3:26 and the composer 3:24.

With the ╔tudes-tableaux Op. 39 we return to more substantial fare, and as the first part of that title suggests, considerable technical demands. Pizarro seems not only to rise to the technical challenges but also to realise the picturesque (“tableaux”) and emotional world of each of these pieces. It is mainly a troubled world: the set dates from 1917, Rachmaninoff’s obsession with the Dies Irae funeral chant makes itself felt at times, and all but the last is in a minor key. The fine recorded sound of Pizarro’s Yamaha, which is rich and mellow with good presence especially at the bottom of the range, particularly suits this powerful set of pieces. There are many excellent alternatives, not least the Russian Rustem Hayroudinoff’s indispensable 2006 benchmark version of both sets of ╔tudes-tableaux, Op. 33 and Op. 39 on Chandos (CHAN10391).

Overall this issue will appeal not for any particular item it contains, but for offering a superbly played and broad conspectus of Rachmaninoff solo piano music, early middle and late, smaller and larger, lighter and heavier – and with the convenience for many collectors of offering complete publications rather than a mix of individual pieces. As such it can stand alone as a valuable example of Pizarro’s Rachmaninoff, and so will be a worthwhile investment even if you don’t go on to acquire subsequent issues. Be warned though: you might then well want to collect the whole series. If this standard is maintained, it should then take its place alongside the complete surveys of Howard Shelley (Hyperion) and Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca).

Roy Westbrook



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