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Grand Russian
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Grand Sonata for Piano in G major Op. 37 [33:05]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor Op. 28 [38:14]
Albert Tiu (piano)
rec. 2017, Concert Hall, Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, National University of Singapore
CENTAUR CRC3661 [71:23]

The 1878 Grand Sonata – “the dullest piece that Tchaikovsky ever wrote” according to the composer’s leading English-language biography – seems never really to have cemented a place in the solo repertoire, at least outside Russia. But some Western European recordings have appeared, not least that of Freddy Kempf on BIS. Perhaps with this disc recorded in Singapore by a pianist from the Philippines it is about to go global. Albert Tiu (b. 1969) was a new name to me, although he has been around. He trained at the Juilliard School, going on to win both competition prizes and golden opinions. Fanfare magazine called a 2010 Centaur disc of Chopin and Scriabin “one of the all-time great piano recordings”.

Tiu’s account of the Tchaikovsky sonata is very good. No-one has told him it is a supposedly weak work. He plays it with affection and mastery, and as if it has been in his repertoire a while, not just learned for this recording. It is called Grand Sonata, and Tiu’s approach is certainly grand. After an imposing opening, he is impressively emphatic in the dotted march rhythm of the opening music (which is very Schumannesque). The appealing second subject is lyrically poised, but he still maintains momentum and keeps the music moving forward throughout the big 13-minute structure. There is plenty of bravura when needed, but no sense of bluster. Tiu believes in this piece and persuades the listener of its virtues as well. The opening of the slow movement is touching in its poetry, and there is very clear articulation in the moderato con animazione section. The scherzo has been the most admired of the four movements, and Tiu plays it very deftly indeed. The finale’s fiery opening grabs the attention. Its rondo structure is clearly delineated, with swift tempi and some terrific playing.

Rachmaninov’s superb Sonata No.1 is a mature work from the period of the Second Symphony. This too has been neglected in recitals but has enjoyed some impressive recent recordings, and Tiu’s is another one. There is an imposing start, but one with a sense of foreboding, and the meno mosso theme, where Rachmaninov suggests deep nostalgia with a few chords, is evocative indeed. Tiu builds from there, hesitantly at first, up to the big chant theme with its repeated notes, balanced perfectly against its fluently played figuration. There is more brilliant playing in the development section. The growth towards the huge climax is superbly managed – or even stage-managed, such is the drama generated up to the return of the chant motif. This dramatic approach suits the work’s subtext: the composer described it as a “Faust Sonata”.
Certainly the slow movement has all the sweetness of Goethe’s Gretchen, bringing out the tender phrases in a tricky texture, and again there is a growth of drama as those textural complexities increase. The finale is steady in tempo but also inexorable, conveyed in the insistent rhythmic drive. Alexis Weissenberg on DGG holds the speed record in this finale, taking a breathlessly frantic 11:35 to Tiu’s 15:16, but that does not mean more excitement – perhaps the reverse, for Tiu’s impetus is what counts here. If one left the performance of the Tchaikovsky feeling the work might be under-rated and deserves more hearings, one leaves this Rachmaninov performance convinced that it is one of the great piano sonatas.

So there are no problems at all with these performances. Both are fine, and I do not know another with the same very appropriate coupling. If you prefer single-composer CDs, my current favourites are the aforementioned Kempff on BIS in the Tchaikovsky, and Rustem Hayroudinoff on Onyx in the Rachmaninov. But if this coupling appeals, you need not hesitate. There is an interesting booklet note from the producer and one also from the pianist, pointing out the thematic and other links between the two sonatas. The recorded sound is good, if not quite the current state of the art for solo piano. It has a nice sense of space around the instrument, but there is a slightly hard piano tone in the (many) massive forte passages, and a touch of glassy brittleness in the treble. But there is no artificiality about the sound, and it is probably just how that instrument sounds in that hall. It is not ruinous, and the ear soon adjusts as the quality of the music, and the playing, exert their spell.

Roy Westbrook



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