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Sergej RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Variations on a theme of Corelli Op.42 (1931) [18:23]
╔tudes-tableaux Op.33 (1911) [22:10]
Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor Op.36 (1913 original version) [23:56]
Massimiliano Motterle (piano)
rec. October 2020, Villa Bossi, Bodio Lomnago, Italy
DA VINCI CLASSICS C00396 [64:30]

A well-planned and executed overview which – as the liner neatly puts it – gives the listener an interesting survey of different aspects of Rachmaninov’s piano works. Very often his Sonatas or ╔tudes Tableaux or Variations will be collected together. There is an irrefutable logic to that programming but in some ways, a ‘mixed’ programme such as here is a more diverse and rewarding experience for a single sitting.

I had not encountered the playing of Massimiliano Motterle before. He is an established prize-winning player with a couple of other recordings [Camilo Sivori’s Etudes-Caprices on Naxos for one] in his discography. As with nearly all international soloists today, Motterle’s technique is impressive and secure. His approach to Rachmaninov is Romantic and expressive. My main concern in both the Tableaux and the Variations is that his willingness to use quite extreme rubato risks the key connecting pulse of the music to become obscured. There were times where for all the passing beauty of the playing I lost the connective through-thread that gives the music form and coherence. The Corelli Variations are an extraordinary work with Rachmaninov squeezing a theme and twenty variations into less than eighteen and a half minutes playing. To my ear the great performances find a musical balance and sequence with variations flowing one into another. Here Motterle delineates each variation very clearly but somehow the result is episodic and the music feels more short-breathed than usual.

Likewise, each of the eight Op.33 ‘pictures’ are finely drawn of themselves but without a greater collective identity. Recently, I was absolutely blown away by Emre Yavuz’s recoding of the same piano sonata as offered here plus ten of Op.23 Preludes. Yavuz deliberately sought an overview in those preludes where in all honesty none probably exists. But as a musical/emotional arc it was hugely impressive and one that significantly increased my pleasure in the performance and appreciation of the works. Here, for all my admiration of each piece and Motterle’s playing of them, they remain discreet, emotionally unrelated pieces. Of course, both Motterle and Yavuz face ferocious competition in all these works where fine technique and good engineering are the norms not the exceptions and a new recording must offer something pretty exceptional to challenge the pre-eminence of earlier discs.

Motterle saves his best performance to last with an impressive and enjoyable traversal of the 1913 version of the Piano Sonata No.2. There are passages in the first movement that are again susceptible to Motterle’s preference to linger perilously but the central non allegro-lento and the final l’istesso tempo-allegro molto are very fine. Out of curiosity about Motterle’s approach I started following his performance via a scan of the 1913 edition on IMSLP. It has to be said, he is very “free” with both the printed dynamics and tempo markings. Of course, a listener’s reaction to this is wholly personal and subjective. Where Yavuz convinced me at every turn I find Motterle more wayward. Possibly the extra quality of Yavuz’s magnificent B÷sendorfer piano and the excellent engineering helped support his very individual reading. Certainly the complexity of Rachmaninov’s inner part writing does not register with quite the same clarity and precision on this disc as it did on the other. Back in 2012 I reviewed Xiayin Wang’s recording of these same Variations and ╔tudes for Chandos. That was a very fine disc indeed with Wang’s playing as illuminating as it was technically remarkable. And there-in lies the problem for this new disc for Motterle – very good in its own right without challenging the best of the rest.

Overall, a good and well-chosen programme played with considerable skill. The liner – in English only - is good if a little literal in a few of the directly translated florid phrases. Not sure I think the art director quite hit the music’s mood by getting Motterle to pose pensively in some graffiti-ridden Italian concrete underpass clutching scores of the works. Engineering is again good without being of demonstration class and much the same can be said for the piano used. Ultimately a disc which gives pleasure through the quality of the music and the skill of the music-making but one unlikely to disturb the pantheon of greats.

Nick Barnard

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