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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Preludes, …tudes-Tableaux & Moments musicaux
Sergei Babayan (piano)
rec. 2019, Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 9181 [61:14]

How fascinating to hear Sergei Babayan, mentor and teacher to Daniil Trifonov, in exquisite performances of Rachmaninov! This is music that requires a master’s hand, most importantly to avoid unnecessary schmaltz, not to mention grandstanding. Babayan is steeped in the Russian tradition. His teachers were Georgy Saradjev, a pupil of Sofronitsky, then Mikhail Pletnev and Lev Naumov. His previous recordings, for a variety of labels, have included the music of Scarlatti, Messiaen, Respighi and Ligeti for ProPiano, Liszt and Mendelssohn for Dicover International, and an all-Prokofiev disc for DG where he partners with none other than Martha Argerich.

Voice-leading is another aspect frequently overlooked in Rachmaninov’s solo output, but how intelligent is Babayan, notably in the famous G harp minor Prelude, Op. 32/12. There is infinite tenderness to this disc: there is a remarkable web of traceries Babayan creates in Rachmaninov’s own transcription of his song Lilacs.

Strength is there, too. One might detect a Russian dryness at the opening of the properly agitato C minor …tude-Tableau Op. 33/3. It is fascinating to compare and contrast this with its darkly restrained C minor counterpart in Op. 39/1.

Hearing the flow of the C minor …tude-tableau Op. 39/1 reveals just what depth of intelligence and imagination is at work here. Texturally perfect – finger velocity welded to finger strength in equal measure – Babayan also finds the emotionally turbulent core of the work before ushering in the tenderest, most caressing cantabile for the A minor …tude-Tableau, Op. 39/2. And when it comes to chord weighting, the lachrymose B minor Prelude from the Op. 32 set is impeccable. This is piano playing of the very highest echelon, and Rachmaninov playing that verges on the peerless today, perhaps only equalled by Daniil Trifonov.

If you want to hear what finger strength can lead to in terms of articulation, go no further than the brief 52- second Morceau de Fantaisie in G minor. And listen to how Babayan projects the various levels simultaneously of the D major Prelude, Op. 23/4. The transcriptions cast a magic spell. The real surprise is the efficacy of Arcadi Volodos’s transcription of the Andante from the Cello Sonata: gorgeous from first to last, and impeccably judged by the arranger.

The final pair of Moments musicaux are mesmerising, and the sheer power of the final C major, Op. 16/6 is almost overpowering. And yet, Babayan never breaks the sound of his superbly prepared piano.

This is Babayan’s first solo album for the Yellow Label, and what an unalloyed success it is. Deutsche Grammofon continues to harvest the best of the best (at whatever age: Babayan was born in 1961). Babayan’s superlative Rachmaninov recital is presented in perfect piano sound.

A complete cycle of Preludes would be an ideal from this pianist. There is a core of steel to his playing but on the surface he can be infinitely pliable. There are not too many pianists around of his ilk. In fact, it is difficult to fill the fingers of one hand with them. We should celebrate that he records for DG, and eagerly await the next instalment…

Colin Clarke

A flat, Op. 23/8, G sharp minor, Op. 32/12, F minor, Op. 32/6, B minor, Op. 32/10, D, Op. 23/4
C minor, Op. 33/3, C minor, Op. 39/1, A minor, Op. 39/2, E flat minor, Op. 39/5
Lilacs, Op. 21/5 (arr. Rachmaninov)
Morceau de fantaisie in G minor
Moments musicaux, Op. 16: No. 2 in E flat minor, No. 6 in C
Melody, Op. 21/9. Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19: Andante (both arr. Volodos)

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Rachmaninov_ Babayan