Rachmaninov

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: Somm Céleste
WORKS: Complete Preludes
PERFORMER: Leon McCawley (piano
CATALOGUE NO: SOMM0143

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Preludes they may be called, but more than a few of these engrossing works demonstrate that size in music isn’t something accounted for in terms of length alone. Here we find ‘big’ pieces dealing with big emotions – and epic landscapes – whatever their temporal dimensions. Another striking feature is the sheer drama found in many of them, requiring a truly operatic dynamic range; a quasi-orchestral tonal palette; a rhythmic ‘reach’ that can bind whole phrases together, unifying an infinite variety into a satisfying dramatic whole; and an all-embracing technique, in which dexterity, finesse and power are matched by a multi-layered three-dimensionality – capable of illuminating the densest textures.

On the credit side, Leon McCawley’s polyphonic clarity is exemplary (heard almost immediately in the famous C sharp minor Prelude). The perfect Rachmaninovian will understand the power of extreme contrasts, closely, and asymmetrically juxtaposed, to create a thrilling tapestry of emotional unpredictability and structural power. Perhaps the most elusive requirement is to understand what one great Russian pianist meant when he remarked ‘My people are only truly happy when they are miserable.’ McCawley is a classy musician and a distinguished pianist, but in this repertoire I find him too reserved and predictable in the face of dazzling variety. His playing also seems rhythmically too static, and colouristically too shallow. However, his steadfast avoidance of bombast and cloying sentimentality is altogether admirable. This, in some senses, is how Mozart might have played Rachmaninov, and he, let’s not forget, was the greatest pianist of his day.

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Jeremy Siepmann