Rachmaninov: Piano Sonatas Nos 1 & 2

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
WORKS: Piano Sonatas Nos 1 & 2; Three Piano Pieces; Nunc dimittis, Op. 37 No. 5
PERFORMER: Leslie Howard (piano);

There are probably good reasons why Rachmaninov’s First Piano Sonata remains such a comparative rarity both on disc and in the concert hall. Apart from the enormous technical demands of the writing, potential interpreters are faced with the challenge of bringing cogency to music that can so easily appear to ramble.
Fortunately, Leslie Howard has the necessary intellectual and musical credentials to overcome such problems. In this beautifully recorded release he negotiates a persuasive course through the turbulent changes of mood in the first movement, only faltering momentarily near the end where perhaps there could have been more of a sense of arrival at the final climax. Howard brings immense emotional gravitas to the ensuing Lento sustaining a dreamy cantabile line in the right hand and making light work of the difficult trill passages that dominate the second half of the movement. Exciting technical fireworks abound in the Finale, but here I feel Howard might have given more line to the thickly scored triplets and the march-like allusions to the Dies Irae could have benefited from a lighter touch.
Howard nails his colours firmly to the mast of the original version of the Second Sonata, and in the booklet notes deplores the composer’s decision to issue a drastically pruned edition in 1931. Once again his judgment is fully vindicated in a terrifically compelling account of the first movement, the thunderous peal of bells in the development section sending shudders down the spine. Not everything, however, works quite as well in the Finale, where some passagework sounds mechanical and the poco meno mosso section is taken too slowly, impeding the music’s beguiling rush of forward momentum. Erik Levi