Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor; Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor (original version)

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor; Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor (original version)
PERFORMER: Idil Biret (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 8.553003
Biret is a prodigiously gifted pianist, a one-time pupil of Cortot and Kempff, with a strong representation in the Naxos catalogue. She’s done some wonderful things in the past, but I find this latest release something of a disappointment. She starts the D minor Sonata, oddly, with a textual misreading, doubling the note values in bar 7, but, more seriously, her rubato sometimes sounds contrived and her laboured delivery gives us some bumpy rides. She’s casual over the Lento’s two-against-three cross-rhythms (and, more cruelly, three-against-five) which Howard Shelley, despite a tasteful rubato, gets spot on. The end of the movement, beginning with the shimmering trills, is beautifully played, but at several points in the final Allegro molto Biret loses all impetus, and she never seriously challenges Shelley’s inspired account.

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The performances of the Second Sonata are not directly comparable. Biret plays the earlier, 1913, version, Shelley the 1931 revision – not a simplification, exactly, but a toning-down of the original score’s superhuman demands to bring the work within reach of the average towering virtuoso. There are good things in Biret’s interpretation, though she makes heavy weather of the final movement’s ‘big tune’ which, in Shelley’s hands, bursts out like the Russian spring. His disc, with warmer sound, is well worth the extra few pounds. Wadham Sutton