RACHMANINOV: Piano Sonatas; TCHAIKOVSKY: Lullaby – Rustem Hayroudinoff, piano – Onyx

RACHMANINOV: Piano Sonata No. 1 in d minor, Op. 28; TCHAIKOVSKY: Lullaby, Op. 16, No. 1 (arr. Rachmaninov); RACHMANINOV: Piano Sonata No. 2 in b-flat minor, Op. 36 (ed. Hayroudinoff) – Rustem Hayroudinoff, piano – Onyx ONYX 4181, 66:38 (6/23/17) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Pianist Rustem Hayroudinoff injects voluptuous energy into the Rachmaninov piano sonatas.

Rachmaninov in 1907 confessed to pianist Konstantin Igumnov that the spell of Liszt’s Eine Faust-Symphonie had held him in thrall, and that he conceived his d minor sonata as a representation of the three main characters: Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. Following Liszt—and to a degree, Wagner—Rachmaninov employed an amalgam of sonata-form and leitmotivic development in the first movement to express Faust’s simultaneous attraction to earthly and spiritual pleasures. Five identifiable motifs crowd the Allegro moderato first movement, among which a Russian orthodox chant emerges amid the welter of often polyphonic activity that often recalls Liszt’s own Dante Sonata and its own urgency for spiritual ascent. Huyroudinoff plays the opening movement with an ongoing, unbroken sense of sweep and directed energy, much as he might realize a sonata by Beethoven. The sparkling figures at the movement’s end enjoy the pearly-play we associate with the Etudes-Tableaux, though they instill in us a theme that will soon embody the Gretchen theme of movement two, the promise of salvation through love.

The Gretchen motif—Lento, based on the interval of the fifth—invokes a sense of purity and celestial space. The quality of innocence repeats in rather a static pattern of fifths and pulsating scales, reminiscent of Scriabin. Hayroudinoff exploits the music’s highly improvisatory character, intimate and lyrically sweet. Akin to Liszt, Rachmaninov realizes Mephistopheles—Allegro molto—as a parody of Faust, mostly in inversion. The ubiquitous Dies Irae trope asserts itself as a danse or marche macabre. The music comes off in the manner of fiendish etude, with double notes galore and tricky agogics. The middle of the movement reveals a delicacy and transparency of tissue quite striking. The bravura keyboard writing proves thoroughly familiar in its hustle and intricacy from the piano concertos two and three. Hayroudinoff effects a high gloss for this music, ardent and totally facile in its often polyphonic means.

The 1941 transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Op. 16 Lullaby in a-flat minor literally ends Rachmaninov’s career in music, his having begun in 1886 with a student transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, Op. 58 for piano duet. The song, the first of the 1872 Romances, takes its cue from the poet Apollon Maykov. A kind of rainy-day magic infuses the keyboard filigree.

Given Rachmaninov’s heavily edited second version of the 1913 b-flat minor Sonata in 1931, pianist Hayroudinoff has re-inserted passages from the original edition that, for him, preserve the scope and continuity of the score. The chromatic descent that opens the first movement Allegro agitato provides the material for this through-composed work whose epic girth and emotional vehemence means to rival the Chopin sonata in the same key.  The solidity of Hayroudinoff’s chords in the middle of the movement warrant the price of admission. The interval of the third, surrounded by tremolando triplets and a moody bass line, define the moment. Once more, we feel that the d minor Piano Concerto stands in the wings, awaiting its cue to take center stage.

The Rachmaninov patented melancholy asserts itself for the Non allegro middle movement, a sighing song rife with arpeggios. The insistent, elegiac character of the music becomes more heated and aggressive, building to a rude, descending arpeggiated passage that announces the L’istesso tempo – Allegro molto finale that—under the mountainous hands of a Horowitz or Hayroudinoff can quite blow off the concert hall roof. The volcanic thrust of this performance (rec. 7-9 December 2015) has all the ingredients wee seek in this music, from simple plainchant to surging, oceanic passages that occasionally drift into parodies of Schumann’s maerchen. Willful and triumphant, the “restored” version here testifies to a fine blend of drama and economical musical consistency.

—Gary Lemco

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