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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 (1907) [40:20]
Alfonso Soldano (piano)
rec. 2019, Theatre “G. Curci”, Barletta, Italy
DIVINE ART DDA25155 [79:56]

This is volume 13 of Divine Art’s “Russian Piano Music Series”, to which pianist Alfonso Soldano has also contributed volume 12, a selection of music by Bortkiewicz. Both volumes have already been praised on this site. The CD opens with the most mature work on the disc, the Étude-Tableaux op.39/2 in A minor from 1916, amongst his last works written before leaving Russia for exile. It is among the most haunted of his piano works, not least because it is a meditation on his idée fixe, the plainchant Dies Irae. Soldano plays it hauntingly too, really taking his time – in fact his 8:15 makes it among the slowest that I know on disc. From the fairly recently praised complete recordings of Op.39, Osborne (Hyperion in 2018) takes 6:04, and Giltburg (Naxos in 2016) 6:45. That’s a noticeable difference in quite a short piece, but Nicolas Angelich (Harmonia Mundi in 1995 reissued 2014) also takes the most time, and his 8:22 achieves a similar mood of melancholy self-absorption. No-one manages to illuminate Rachmaninov’s puzzling reference, offered to Respighi when the latter was orchestrating it, to “the sea and seagulls”! But Soldano has a refined touch and makes his tempo sound right and inevitable, and he is effective in increasing the unrest in the swifter middle section.

The Moments Musicaux. Op.16 are often seen as the first examples of the characteristic Rachmaninov piano style. These six pieces from 1896 bring the more complex textures and greater technical difficulty that will be a hallmark thereafter. Soldano again lingers over the opening B flat minor piece, his 8:50 contrasting with the 7:16 of Giltburg (on that same Naxos disc as his Op.39). Here the tempo is less persuasive, giving a slight sense of attempting to wring more from the music than might be there. In No.2 in E flat minor his tempo is closer to the norm, and though he is a minute slower than the 2:49 of Rachmaninov’s own recording, so is almost everyone else. That these pieces can of course work at different speeds is shown by the lovely No.3 where it is Soldano’s nicely flowing 4:42 that fits the marked andante cantabile better than Giltburg’s 7:31, but both are full of feeling. In No.4 Soldano is again splendid, not least in the poetry of the highly characteristic descending bell motif. His poetic feeling is abundant also in the rocking barcarolle rhythm of No.5, which is beautifully phrased, while in the Maestoso of the final item – one of the composer’s most challenging technically – Soldano makes an impressive close to this fine account of Op.16.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor from 1907 has increasingly come to seem to me his finest large-scale piano work, less well-known than the Second Sonata, and until recently much less recorded. But in recent years more young players have been drawn to it enough to spend the length of time needed to master its scale and difficulty. There is a programme which deploys the Faust legend, and though Rachmaninov never published that he claimed the work could be better understood through it. But this First Sonata makes perfect sense, once one knows it, without any programme, so logical is its unfolding, and so satisfying its organic method, with so much derived from its opening material, and with potent recall of themes at key moments.

Alfonso Soldano is clearly a master of this demanding work, but with an overall timing of 40 minutes there are generally broad tempi, but always in service of Soldano’s conception. This is most evident in the great second subject of the first movement, a wonderful ‘chant’ motif (track 8, 2: 56). Here this is very deliberate in its motion, to the extent that someone coming new to the work might struggle initially to discern the theme’s musical shape. But it is compelling nonetheless, wreathed in thickets of figuration which Soldano expertly controls. The dramatic shape of the whole movement too is well delineated, each of its high points making its mark. The exquisite slow movement enchants the listener here as much as Gretchen did Faust, its lyrical flow (and polyphonic texture) realised in an expansive reading which is often spellbinding. The headlong passages of the finale generate plenty of excitement in Soldano’s hands, and he recalls motifs from earlier in the sonata with fine judgement for the unfolding drama, right up to the equivocations of the work’s coda. This is a terrific performance of a tremendous work.

The booklet notes are helpful, and the recorded sound is realistic, rich and full, quite close but with sufficient ambience, and captures the pianist’s often dramatic dynamic range. This is a very fine disc, with a version of the Sonata that can stand alongside the several other strong accounts of recent years such as Luganski (Naïve, 2012), Xiayin Wang (Chandos, 2014), and Hayroudinoff (Onyx, 2017). All these are coupled with the revised version of the Second Sonata.

It is worth mentioning for those new to the First Sonata that Hayroudinoff’s recording has outstanding notes by the pianist himself, a much expanded version of which can be downloaded from the label’s website, which elucidates the structure with great insight on the Faust connection. The online note has some music examples, but is non-technical mostly and can be followed with the references to his own timings on the CD. This will tell you more about both sonatas than any of the standard English language books on the composer have managed.

But if this coupling appeals, then Alfonso Soldano’s very fine disc will certainly satisfy.

Roy Westbrook

Previous review: John France

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