Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No. 2 • Musorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Sometimes you can sense tutorial lineage behind the way a pianist plays. Grace Francis studied at the Royal College of Music with the Ukrainian pianist Irina Zaritskaya, who trained in Moscow when Soviet pianism was at its zenith, and who has clearly passed on to her young British pupil the Moscow school’s insistence on a big and expressive sound.
With Musorgsky’s Pictures, ‘Gnomus’ rings out with compelling authority. ‘The Old Castle’ comes over with a singing tone and in a clean style without a trace of mannerism; the phrasing is fastidiously controlled. As the illustrated walk continues, one appreciates the way Francis lets the music breathe, and coaxes out the character of each painting. ‘Bydlo’ approaches and passes vividly, and one can almost see the un-hatched chicks in their dance; the market pullulates with life, and the atmosphere chills right down with the ‘Catacombs’ and ‘Con Mortuis’; after the closing chorale the work ends in a blaze of magnificence – as do Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations which follow. Both these works are delivered with artistry of rare refinement.
The opening of the Rachmaninov Sonata ought to have the massive force of a great wall collapsing, but here Francis plays too carefully. But the corollary of that is that in her hands this work is very finely controlled. The Lento becomes a distillation of the purest lyricism, and the Allegro molto is powered along by sumptuous virtuosity.