RACHMANINOV: Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor, OP. 28; 6 Moments Musicaux, Op. 16; Etude-Tableau in A minor, Op. 39, No. 2 – Alfonso Soldano, piano – Divine Art dda 25155, 79:56 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Alfonso Soldano (b. 1986), a student of Aldo Ciccolini, currently serves as Professor of Piano Performance at the Conservatory U. Giordano in Foggia, Italy. For this disc of Rachmaninov (rec. 1-4 July 2019), Soldano plays a Steinway D-274.
Soldano opens with an especially lucid reading of Rachmaninov’s expansive Etude Tableau in A minor, Op. 39, No. 2, a fantasy that exploits the composer’s fascination with the Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass. Even in its various permutations in brilliant, upper register filigree, we can hear references to the Liszt model, Totentanz. A lush improvisation, the piece juxtaposes mortality and sensuality, in the manner of the morbidly curious who compose beauty in the aftermath of WW I.
The set of six Moments Musicaux – after Schubert – derive from 1896, revealing aspects of Schubert, Liszt, and Russian doxology. The first piece, a nocturne (Andantino) in B-flat minor in triplet sixths, proves the longest – in four sections – and it could easily be compared to extended, impromptu works in Liszt or Chopin. The composer’s sense of elaboration and embellishment clearly takes its cue from Chopin and Liszt. The No. 2 Allegretto in E-flat minor will run and soar into the major mode, its etude status uplifted by marvelous triplets in both hands, most effective in Soldano’s realization. The Andante cantabile No. 3 is subtitled Canto, a B minor study close in spirit to the Prelude in the same key composed later, Op. 32. We encounter a noble march in spread ninths, twice played, the first version simple, the second ennobled by staccato octaves. The E minor No. 4, Presto, has a militant demeanor to portray charging cavalry, the sustained rhythm in sextuplets’ supporting a rising melody first, then a new motif in thirds. A favorite of Benno Moiseiwitsch, the piece allows the pianist to exploit the entire range of the keyboard in bold colors. The huge bell tones conclude with a fortissimo climax worthy of the excellent sound reproduction from Christian Ugenti. The Adagio sostenuto No. 5 in D-flat Major bears the hallmarks of Franz Liszt. A sweet barcarolle, the piece exudes a moment of relative calm, especially before the storms of No. 6, Maestoso in C Major. Inspired by Chopin’s “Ocean,” in C minor, Op. 25, No. 12, beset by rapid figuration and massive, surging melody. A perpetuujm mobile of sorts, the piece tests articulation and stamina. Some find a connection to the composer’s song Fountain Op. 26, No. 11, while others hear only some of the most potent chords ever devised for the instrument.
Since Liszt had composed Eine Faust-Symphonie, Rachmaninov felt compelled to write a “Faust-Sonata,” his 1906 Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 28. In a letter to Medtner, Rachmaninov called the work “naturally wild and infinite.” Once more, the Dies Irae’s reminder of mortality suffuses the piece. Rachmaninov both lamented and boasted when he wrote, “No one will ever play this composition: it is too difficult and long.” Ironically, amid the masses of notes and Dies Irae permutations, the score relies on deceptively uncomplicated means: repeated notes, fifths, and diverse scales in registers that traverse the scope of the keyboard. The music conforms to the shape Liszt assigned his programmatic symphony: Faust, Gretchen, Mephistopheles.
Rachmaninov utilizes rising and falling fifths to portray Faust, the ceaseless quester after knowledge, even that beyond “earthly meat and drink.” Scalar passages indicate the breadth of Faust’s searches, culminating in a soring theme that obsessively concentrates on the tone A. This theme assumes a hymnal character and develops in whirling and frenzied figures. Soldano assigns this music both a lyric and manic character at once, creating a sense of colliding impulses, creative and self-destructive. We hear intimations of Russian doxology, as if Faust were groping for some metaphysical consolation, even in the throes of doubt and cascading despair.
The Lento movement opens with three sets of falling fifths. Gretchen, like Dante’s Beatrice, embodies innocence and purity. The music several times achieves a distinct height and other-worldly character, though the raptures could easily assume a “Wagnerian” character in their erotic possibilities. The thematic links to the Piano Concerto No. 3 seem all too obvious. The extended descending scale of the coda may imply a more “mundane” consummation than the aerial pyrotechnics had suggested earlier in the movement. The liquid harmonies in the upper registers – the trills could be pure Scriabin – seem appropriated more from Franz Liszt, who bore the key of F-sharp Major as a sign of transcendence.
The Mephistopheles movement, Allegro molto, owes a debt to Berlioz, whose “Ride to the Abyss” from The Damnation of Faust has set the motile progression of galloping frenzy. Undulating fifths and rising and falling scales carry Faust and Mephistopheles together, the “visual” implications of wind and fire. A moment of polyphony moves to a tolling-bell effect that ushers in the ubiquitous Dies Irae, but not before we have a glimpse of Rachmaninov, the master of Romantic melody. Long sequences seem lifted directly from the D minor Piano Concerto, the themes and motifs superimposed upon one another. Faust has visions of Gretchen and the life of romantic fulfillment he has sacrificed in the name of forbidden knowledge. The Dies Irae catapults downward, converting the few moments of divine consolation into shrieks of Dantesque despair. The martial impulses – some reminiscent of the Suite for 2 Pianos, Op. 17 – assume a particularly percussive and bravura character, as if Soldano’s hands cannot move fast or broadly enough to subsume the diabolical contradictions – including soft touches of recalled bliss – of musical energies. Liszt’s lesson in using repeated notes has become, for Rachmaninov, a plainchant for the damned. The extended coda has Soldano magnificently in the throes of a spiraling passion, and we barely can distinguish between pleasure and pain.