27-year-old pianist Sudbin is another of the Russian brand of superb pianists. His first CD for BIS, of Scarlatti sonatas, won much acclaim. It would be difficult to move for his next recording to a composer further afield, but Sudbin proves a terrific Rachmaninov interpreter. He also contributes all the program notes about the music, with many interesting observations such as the connections between Rachmaninov’s music and the mood of the Russian intelligentsia around 1900.
The opening Variations are not just a little prelude to the big Second Piano Sonata, but the longest work on the program and a companion to the much better-known Corelli Variations. The composer got some criticism following the work’s premiere over the length of the piece and its frequent repetition of the main theme – Chopin’s familiar C Minor Prelude Op. 28 No. 20. In his notes Sudbin goes into the Russian obsession with death and fatalism shown strongly in Rachmaninov’s music by his frequent quotations of the medieval chant Dies irae. It is used in both Variations 13 & 14. Sudbin also mentions the bell sound (foretelling death) which is heard in some of the Variations and in many other Rachmaninov works. It is a pleasure to hear such an exciting performance of this little-known work, and in the typically clean and immersive hi-res surround provided by BIS.
The composer’s “chronic nostalgia” for Russia (as Sudbin puts it) is heard in the two song transcriptions. The other two transcriptions – of Fritz Kreisler’s big hits – are representative of the many concert transcriptions which Rachmaninov made of various pieces. But his versions – unlike most others – stand up as adventurous new pieces, with exciting and virtuosic turns on the originals. The sound of church bells dominates the Sonata No. 2, which could be seen as a solo piano version of the same musical ideas the composer developed in his choral symphony The Bells. All three movements relate to the hypnotic sound of bells, and in the second we have – sure enough – that Dies irae theme once again. Rachmaninov also ran into negative opinions about this work, regarding its extensive polyphony and length. He cut 120 bars and made many other changes, but the new version lost some of the original’s excitement. Horowitz – perhaps the greatest Rachmaninov interpreter after the composer – came up with the idea of combining the two versions into one, and the composer approved of the changes. Since then performers have custom-designed the materials of the Sonata to come up with their own versions. Sudbin says his is closest to the Horowitz combo but brings back some original passages that had been cut to achieve greater impact.
– John Sunier