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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sonata No.8 in B flat Major Op. 84 (1939-44) [27:47]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Sonata No.2 in B flat minor Op. 36 (1913, Edition 1931) [19:01]
Sergei TANEYEV (1856-1915)
Prelude and Fugue in G sharp minor Op. 29 (1910) [7:24]
Ilya Maximov (piano)
rec. Solitär der Universität Mozarteum, Salzburg, 2017

The young Russian pianist Ilya Maximov studied at the Royal College of Music in London and at the Salzburg Mozarteum. He has had a remarkable track record as a competition prize-winner. He has won prizes in more than fifteen international competitions including the Maria Canals Competition (Spain), the Hilton Head Competition (USA), the José Iturbi Competition (Spain) the Scottish International Piano Competition, and the prestigious GB Viotti Piano Competition in Italy in 2015. With that competition success and exposure, he now has a busy concert career. So it is a surprise that we have had to wait until the end of 2017 for this debut CD. It has an ambitious programme with demanding sonatas by Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, and a rarity from Taneyev. It is clear from all these performances that he has a strong affinity with the Russian repertoire.

Maximov (regrettably, in my view) plays the composer’s 1931 revision of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No.2, which the pianist describes in his own booklet note as “slightly shorter”. In fact that version removed 120 bars, more than a quarter of the music. Howard Shelley recorded both versions for Hyperion, and the finale in his uncut version plays for 14:06 but in his shortened version for 07:21. Horowitz even regretted the extent of the cuts, 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 of the versions (e.g. Sudbin and Lugansky, among other modern recordings). Leslie Howard on Melba plays the full original version and says in his note “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.”

Having ridden that particular hobby horse out once more, I should say at once that this recording of the 1931 revised Second Sonata is very impressive. It is announced dramatically in the opening theme – with its a precipitate descent from the top of the keyboard to the bottom B flat - and Maximov has a touchingly tender way with the second subject. He sounds as if he loves this music so much he lingers rather, but not so much as to becalm the movement. The development, with its exultant pealing of bells, has plenty of sonic impact, helped by the full rich recording. The Lento second movement here creates a lovely lyrical evocation of a balmy summer’s night at Ivanovka, the composer’s summer estate, and this time Maximov does not linger, but flows convincingly to the ecstatic climax. He is no less passionate in the middle piu mosso section. In the Allegro molto finale he sets off at a swift tempo but has the technique to articulate everything well, even in the brilliant coda – he takes just 5:21 against that 7:21 of Shelley. As ever when I hear a fine account of this 1931 version, I hope the artist will take up the original 1913 version one day. I’d like to hear Maximov in the glorious First Sonata of Rachmaninoff too. Or just in more Rachmaninoff!

Prokofiev’s Eighth Sonata is considered by some to be his finest work for keyboard, and Maximov plays it convincingly. He likes the tempi to flow, especially in the first two of the three movements. Here they go by in 14:01 and 3:44, compared to Mikhail Pletnev’s 14:29 and 4:38 and Boris Giltburg’s 14:51 and 4:27, to pick two of Maximov’s illustrious compatriots from different generations. But Maximov does not feel especially brisk, or less lyrical, and he integrates different episodes well while keeping things moving. In the Vivace finale he finds a middle course, his 10:03 a bit swifter than Pletnev’s 10: 45, and a bit steadier than Giltburg’s headlong 9:19. But Maximov’s speed works well too – in fact all three accounts have plenty of the excitement we want from this amazing summation of a huge work. If his older rivals are ultimately even more persuasive overall, there is not that much in it. On its own terms this is very good indeed.

There is an extra item too, in Taneyev’s intriguing Prelude and Fugue in G sharp minor. Taneyev was a musical conservative, and a great pianist, teacher and theorist. Each time I encounter a piece of his it seems he was a fairly distinguished composer too, not played enough in the West perhaps. He was an enthusiastic contrapuntist, so this piece is not atypical I suspect. It sounds hard to play – the fugue seems pretty dense in incident. But Maximov makes a good case for it, with his skilled delineation of its knotty texture. Still, the CD plays for less than 55 minutes, and perhaps a bigger piece might have replaced the Taneyev, or perhaps we could still have heard Maximov in some of the very many shorter works of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. But that is probably greedy – there is no shortage of notes in this programme after all. With a fine instrument superbly recorded, an informative booklet, and some very impressive playing, this is a splendid calling card from a brilliant musician.

Roy Westbrook

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