Rachmaninov: Etudes-tableaux

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Somm
ALBUM TITLE: Rachmaninov: Etudes-tableaux
WORKS: Etudes-tableaux Opp. 33 & 39
PERFORMER: Martin Cousin (piano)

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Scottish pianist Martin Cousin has garnered much praise for his recordings of Russian repertory, in particular an astutely conceived performance of Rachmaninov’s formidably difficult First Sonata. Here he tackles the equally demanding sets of Etudes-Tableaux and demonstrates an impressive command of their huge technical challenges. Following in the footsteps of Rachmaninov the performer, Cousin presents the music stripped of any Romantic indulgence, adopting a much more transparent approach to texture that emphasises the angular nature of the writing. This works especially effectively in the almost neo-classical contours of Op. 39 No. 4 where Cousin, supported by an admirably clear recording, succeeds in establishing an unexpected musical link to Prokofiev in the way he deploys the relentless almost percussive rhythmic patterns.

Elsewhere I find Cousin’s approach somewhat less convincing. The famous Appassionata Op. 39 No. 5 is powerfully projected, but in the last resort misses the unbridled – even unhinged – forward momentum conveyed by Rustem Hayroudinoff in his superlative recording for Chandos. Likewise, although Cousin delivers breathtakingly clear fingerwork in the technical fireworks of the ensuing Op. 39 No. 6, inspired by the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, Hayroudinoff offers a greater range of colours.

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Cousin performs reflective pieces such as the Moderato of Op. 33 No. 5 or the Lento assai Op. 39 No. 2 with great sensitivity. Yet Hayroudinoff’s almost impressionistic handling of timbre and subtle use of rubato seems even more apposite to the doom-laden and emotionally fraught atmosphere of the music. Erik Levi