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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Études-Tableaux in A minor, op.39, no.2 (1916/17) [8:15]
Moments Musicaux, op.16 (1896) [31:21]
Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor, op.28 (1908) [40:20]
Alfonso Soldano (piano)
rec. 2019, Theatre “G. Curci”, Barletta, Italy
Russian Piano Music Series, Volume 13
DIVINE ART DDA25155 [79:56]

For me, the highlight of this new CD from Divine Art is Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor, op.28 (1908). Most enthusiasts of his music know the massive Second Sonata which has retained its popularity and importance in the repertoire. But turning to the First Sonata, the numbers tell a different story. Currently the Arkiv Catalogue lists some 89 versions of the Second Sonata compared to only 30 of the First. One reason why it has been ignored is the ‘awesome difficulty ‘and maybe its ‘sprawling’ duration. The composer himself wrote that ‘No one will ever dare to execute this because it is too difficult, long and discontinuous on the musical level…’

The Piano Sonata No.1 was begun in November 1906 whilst Rachmaninov was living in Dresden. Other projects at this time included the magnificent Symphony No.2 and the unfinished opera Monna Vanna. The Sonata was completed by 14 May 1907 and was premièred in Moscow by Konstantin Igumnov the following year.

I tend to listen to this Sonata as a piece of ‘absolute’ music, but the composer did provide a ‘programme’. Apparently, it was inspired by Franz Liszt’s great Faust Symphony. The liner notes quote the Rachmaninov in a letter to fellow composer Nikolai Medtner where he says that he has not written ‘a music program in the true sense of the word even if the sense of the Sonata will be better understood if this subject is kept in mind.’

Alfonso Soldano deals with all the difficulties of this ‘epically proportioned work’. Here, along with the remarkable Piano Concerto No.3, is a compendium of ‘all the musical and instrumental experiences of the composer.’ The pianist’s technical prowess and interpretative skills are stretched to the limit. Massive passage work is balanced by ‘lush sensuous harmonies and haunting melodies.’ Rachmaninov’s own description of the Sonata as ‘naturally wild and infinite’ holds good, but couple to that a sense of intimacy in many bars and we have a perfect description of this demanding work.

The CD opens with a great performance of the Études-Tableaux op.39, no.2 in A minor. It was composed in 1916. Rachmaninov gave the piece a subtitle of ‘The Sea and the Seagulls.’ This was to help Italian composer Ottorino Respighi complete his superb orchestration of five of these Études. This number is quiet, lyrical and, for Rachmaninov, relatively easy to play, apparently! The interest in this fragile work is maintained by the gently shifting tonality. Although some commentators have suggested that the restrained nature of this Étude can lead to monotony, I find this is one of the most beautiful of the set. It is played here with a touching and sympathetic hand, with Soldano brilliantly contrasting the relative drama of the middle section with the tenuous opening and closing passages. For the record there are two sets of Études-Tableaux: op.33 and op.39. The title simply means ‘study-pictures’ that are designed to ‘investigate the transformation of rather specific climates of feeling via piano textures and sonorities.’ (Max Harrison)

I have always enjoyed the six Moments Musicaux. These are relatively early works having been composed in 1896 when Rachmaninov was in his early twenties. The basic concept of these pieces is an exploration of musical forms from a previous generation. Each Moment has an underlying form: nocturne, impromptu, a song without words, an étude, a barcarolle, and another study, this time a perpetuum mobile. These pieces were written after the less than encouraging première of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.1. They owe much to Schubert’s own Six Moments Musicaux, D.780 (Op.94). The Moments Musicaux can be played individually, but I feel that they are better programmed as set. Then the powerful finale, played ‘maestoso’, can provide an ideal and satisfying conclusion to this remarkable set of piano pieces. Musicologist Maurice Hinson has described this collection as being ‘brilliant salon pieces written in full blown late romantic style.’ Perhaps a little damning with faint praise, but I get the drift. They are superbly played here by Soldano.

The liner notes are excellent and provide enough information for listeners both familiar and unfamiliar with these works. The sound reproduction is ideal. As for the playing, I was both impressed and amazed. I have long known the Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor, however this was the first time that it made sense to me. In other words, I think I have ‘got it.’ Italian pianist Alfonso Soldano is brilliant in every way - from presenting a compelling technique to displaying an intimate relationship with some of the truly dreamy passages.

John France

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