RACHMANINOFF: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Min or, Op. 35; 3 Preludes from Op. 23; 6 Moments musicaux, Op. 16 – Sonya Bach, piano – Rubicon RCD 1058 (6/25/21) 68:18 [Distr. by PIAS] ****:
Recorded 26 and 27 July 2019, this all-Rachmaninoff program by Korean-born Sanya Bach (b. 1981) testifies to her tutelage with such masters of the Russian idiom as Lazar Berman and Mordecai Shehori. She chooses to perform Rachmaninoff’s 1931 revision of his 1913 Piano Sonata No. 2, which the composer deemed “too superfluous” in its means, whereas the “Chopin Second Sonata says all in 19 minutes.”
Even with its emendations, the music of the Sonata’s first movement, Allegro agitato, strikes us with combination of rhythmic energy and chromatic coloration, which often resembles figures in Scriabin’s Sonata No. 10 from virtually the same year, 1913. Both works create the image of a continuous piece evolved from a basic ground-plan. The plunging arpeggio of the opening chords, especially on Bach’s Steinway Model D, catapult us into the depths, but Rachmaninoff soon consoles us with a hymn in the major mode. The texture thickens substantially, and even the composer complained that, in its original version, too many ideas competed in a mass of sound. The last pages signal a kind of dissolution of energy but in morose, minor-key figures in high register – in lovely piano tones from Ms. Bach – suggesting a confrontation merely delayed rather than resolved.
The second movement Rachmaninoff marks Non allegro – Lento, which Ms. Bach plays as a series of tenuous phrases that serve as a bridge between the two outer movements. A feeling of clarion resolve emerges, especially given the composer’s penchant for Russian bells set in Debussy-like, liquid and cascading pulses. Bits of the first movement figuration add a meditative calm to the sensibility. The last movement, L’istesso tempo -Allegro molto quite sweeps the idyll away, intruding with a mountain of sound with the Steinway’s lowest B’s tolling in the depths. The secondary theme has something of the romantic yearning we know from the composer’s piano concertos. Between heroic urgency and poetic reflection, the music mounts a fierce apotheosis and a mad dash to a many-layered conclusion even Scriabin could admire.
Ms. Bach shifts the mood drastically, with the lulling D Major Prelude, Op. 23, No. 4, the set of ten preludes from 1902. A nocturne suffused with chimes, this piece, in its lyrical glory, seems to define Ms. Bach’s affection for the Russian soul. The famous G Minor, No. 5, rivals the ubiquitous C-sharp Minor Prelude for popular hegemony. The No. 5’s triumphant march receives a soft, nostalgic reply in its middle section, a sense of soaring heimweh that we often find in the music of Grieg. Her triptych from Op. 23 concludes the elegiac no. 6 Andante in E-flat Major, which sets the ardently winding accompaniment in 16ths, 8ths, and quarters under a placid top line.
Ms. Bach concludes with the set of Rachmaninoff’s 1896 Moments musicaux, entitled in full homage to Schubert, but reveling in Rachmaninoff’s own hands and their capacity for Herculean spans and color combinations. The expansive, No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Andantino, reflects much of the composer’s admiration of Chopin, combining a nocturne and theme and variations. In three sections, it displays Ms. Bach’s fluent legato and her coloring of bell tones. Rachmaninoff includes a cadenza as a transition to the last, quick section, marked Andantino con moto.
The passionate side of the young Rachmaninoff becomes superbly manifest in No. 2 in E-flat Minor, Allegretto, whose chromatic impulses convey a fervent urgency. The character of No. 3 in B Minor, Andante cantabile, seems diffuse but contemplative in the manner of the quiet preludes. Later in the progression, the music assumes a martial atmosphere superimposed over the reflective melody. The No. 4 in E Minor, Presto – a favorite vehicle for Benno Moiseiwitsch – asks Ms. Bach for bombastic assertiveness, the left hand’s at first carrying the ostinato impulse of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, which eventually occupies both hands. Bach must play the last part more quicky than the fervent opening, moving to a colossal, final cadence in E Minor. Ms. Bach’s own capacity for muscular stretti proves quite effective. The No. 5 in D-flat Major, Adagio sostenuto could owe debts to Beethoven’s most famous expression in the same mode, his Moonlight Sonata, given the intense lyricism of this moment. Rachmaninoff marks the last of the set, No. 6 in C Major, Maestoso, a powerful, sweeping gesture that corresponds much with Chopin’s “Ocean” Etude, Op. 25, No. 12. The demand for 32nds in 3/4 might give some pianists pause while maintaining the chordal melody, but not Ms. Bach. The 2-page coda proves no less daunting to Ms. Bach, who has found a natural medium in the music of Russia’s most nostalgic spokesman.