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Serge RACHMANINOFF (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)
rec. 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 disc of Rachmaninoff for Chandos, containing the Corelli Variations, Moments Musicaux and ╔tudes-tableaux Op.33, found great favour almost everywhere. Here was a young artist with both the technique and the temperament for music that requires so much of both. On the evidence of that issue and this new one the series should certainly continue - and not stop at two discs as Chandos did after their two extremely fine Rachmaninoff discs from Rustem Hayroudinoff in 2003 and 2006 (Preludes CHAN10107; Etudes-Tableaux CHAN 10391). Meantime this new disc from Wang of the two tremendous sonatas, in superb sound, is an immensely welcome next installment.

Both sonatas are important and mature statements. The first is from 1907, following the Second Symphony and the second is originally from 1913, the year of The Bells, but was drastically revised and truncated in 1931. For neither work can we really speak of an established performing tradition. Recordings of the First Sonata were rare until recently, and the long original (and surely best) version of the Second was suppressed for many years, and now there are still other ‘versions’: see below. On this issue Wang plays the revised version of 1931.

The First Sonata opens with the highest promise – the piano sound has great presence and realism, and the striking gestures of the first bars are given with a fine rhetorical flourish (though perhaps with some exaggerated dynamics, more ff than the marked f). Then the haunting Meno Mosso second subject has the right chant-like hypnotic quality. The progress of the movement is very well elucidated in Wang’s hands – the complex textures are never muddied during the long (13:19) first movement. Wang has mastered that structure so that she can grade the dramatic peaks as we progress to the towering main climax – which is imposingly delivered.

The affecting slow movement is balm after the storms that preceded it, and Wang responds insightfully to the composer’s knack of giving us a simple motif of a few notes, but making it magical with subtle changes to the accompaniment. The finale builds irresistible momentum and with often coruscating virtuosity. Some might feel it is more frenetic at certain points than is ideal, but there is no doubt of her command of the keyboard. Her powerful account of the monumental writing of the closing bars would have a live audience on its feet. One wonders how she encompasses all the demands, especially some of the big stretches, since on YouTube she seems not to have Rachmaninoff-sized hands — few pianists do. Also her website – which might be out of date or incomplete, for it has only two sample recitals - lists only the Moments Musicaux Op.16, the Second Concerto and Paganini Rhapsody among Rachmaninoff’s works in her repertoire but it certainly does not sound as if she learned these big pieces just for the recording sessions.

The Second Sonata is no less impressive, beginning with that thrillingly theatrical headlong descent from the top of the keyboard to the bottom B flat, and the climax of the development, with its exultant clangour of bell sounds, has plenty of impact. The Lento middle movement has a lovely meditative poise, at least until Wang launches emphatically into its piu mosso section. The Allegro molto finale sees Wang risking all with her swift tempi, especially in the dazzling coda.

The disc also has some delightful shorter additions, in the shape of three preludes (numbers 4-6) from Op.23, which make a satisfying group. The outer lyrical ones are charmingly done, and the famous fifth prelude is spectacular, the rhythm as compelling as in Richter’s recording, and with a similar subtle ‘lift’ and rubato. She stands comparison here even with the composer himself, whose very swift 3:32 timing she exactly matches.

Wang does not quite have the field to herself in coupling the two sonatas, though there is still a relative scarcity of discs with both, and comparisons are complicated by the very different versions of the Second Sonata, for which we need a small digression. The 1931 revision of Piano Sonata No.2 removed 120 bars, more than a quarter of the music. Rachmaninoff said his benchmark was Chopin’s Second Sonata - also in B flat minor, and a regular item in his recitals - “which last nineteen minutes – and says everything”. In fact the Russian’s style is more expansive than that of the Pole, and needs time and space to makes its full effect – think of the way the long sequences build to a climax in the concertos and symphonies. Horowitz regretted the extent of those excisions, and with the composer’s approval restored some of them, and some recordings have followed his version – or varied it further, or made their own different conflation. Sometimes it is difficult for the collector to know quite what a recording contains. Sudbin‘s fine BIS disc ominously refers to its being “based on versions by Horowitz”. Lugansky’s booklet note in his Na´ve disc (AM-208) tells us he “presents his own vision of the work, which leans more towards the original 1913 version … (but) he has made a number of significant changes by adopting here and there elements from the second one…”

One day this will all seem as strange as the well intentioned ‘help’ with composition that Bruckner was once given by his friends and editors. There are some recordings now of the full original text of the Second Sonata, coupled with No.1. On Calliope CAL 9259 in 1998 (back when Rachmaninov still had his 'v') we had Yakov Kasman’s brilliant playing, albeit with some shallow piano sound in the treble. Naxos has Idil Biret but I have not heard her disc (8.553003). Fine recording and playing can be heard on Melba’s excellent disc from 2011 with Leslie Howard, who shows great feeling for the style and is technically a very sound if not spectacular player of Rakhmaninov - ‘k’ and ‘v’ needed when searching. He also nails his colours to the mast in his excellent note with this view on the versions of No.2: “This (1931) version … depletes the original structure and spirit of the work. There are to be fair champions of the revised version, but no musician should ever give a passing thought to a ‘pick and mix’ version of the two texts.” Quite so.

So strict comparisons with Wang’s disc first need to be confined to discs with both sonatas, and with the Second in its 1931 revised form. This takes us to the astonishing Alexis Weissenberg on DG in 1989 (427 499-2), but that is hard to find. Howard Shelley on Hyperion in 1982 has the revised version and that might be easier to come by – but excellent as that is Wang is even better. Of couplings with the original 1913 version, or some ‘pick and mix’ hybrid Ó la Horowitz, Nicolai Lugansky on Na´ve is outstanding and possibly still trumps even Wang. He sounds so inside the idiom and so in control of the notes. It's one of the great Rachmaninov CDs, if you can put textual concerns aside. So for now this outstanding CD from Xiayin Wang is virtually on its own if you want to stick with the last version of No.2 which the composer himself composed and published.

Rachmaninoff, strange to say, still needs champions. Here is the supreme composer-pianist of the last century adding two large sonatas to the piano repertoire but which many of the great pianists especially of the Austro-German tradition did not, and do not, perform. Perhaps they find that the amount of preparatory work needed is excessive. Kasman in his notes on Calliope says of the Sonata No.1: “ I can understand why it is so rarely performed: it takes an enormous amount of work. Personally it took me six months” or perhaps they find the sentiment alien? Certainly a pervading sense of nostalgia was essential to his aesthetic, long before his exile from his beloved homeland. Rachmaninoff is never sentimental – rather his is a passionate and noble art, and we still have much to learn about it. On this CD we have a truly gifted performer providing the expert advocacy that it still needs.

Roy Westbrook
Previous review: Nick Barnard