RACHMANINOV – The Piano Sonatas
Piano Sonata No.1 in D Minor Op.28
Lullaby (Tchaikovsky) Op.16 No.1) arr. Rachmaninov
Piano Sonata No.2 in B-flat Minor Op.36
Rustem Hayroudinoff (piano)
ONYX 4181 (available from Presto Classical)
What on earth, you are asking, am I doing reviewing a CD by a pianist whose name would be largely unknown to New Zealand audiences? The answer is that Rustem Hayroudinoff is the brother of the remarkable Tatarstan pianist Halida Dinova who has relatively recently toured New Zealand on two occasions, giving, at the Lower Hutt Little Theatre during her visit here in 2012, one of the most remarkable recitals I’ve ever witnessed – go to https://middle-c.org/2012/05/halida-dinova-russian-soul-from-tatarstan/ for more details. At the time, I thought Dinova’s playing seemed to epitomise a style long associated with Russian-trained pianists, one which invariably resulted in music-making that powerfully conjured up a compelling amalgam of pictorial, emotional and structural associations out of whatever repertoire these pianists performed.
On the strength of the brilliant music-making to be found on this new Onyx CD from Rustem Hayroudinoff, that tradition certainly runs in the family – it’s a further example of a musician’s alchemic “ownership” of the notes and their recreation in performance. Coincidentally enough, I had already encountered Hayroudinoff, in a previous issue of Rachmaninov’s music on the Chandos label, featuring the composer’s complete Preludes (CHAN 10107), long before I knew of the connection with Dinova.
This time Hayroudinoff turns his attention to the Piano Sonatas, adding a well-judged interlude in the form of Rachmaninov’s transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby Op.16 No.1, placed between the two larger works. Hayroudinoff comments in a thoughtful note printed in the CD booklet, that this was Rachmaninov’s last composition, dating from 1941, aptly completing a circle of creativity which had begun as a 13 year-old with another Tchaikovsky transcription, that of the latter’s Manfred Symphony for piano duet.
Still, whatever the Tchaikovsky Lullaby transcription’s merits, nobody will be buying this disc with this piece first and foremost in mind – though the Sonatas (especially the Second) have had their “champions” (one thinks of John Ogdon’s ground-breaking 1968 LP of both works, for example, and Vladimir Horowitz’s espousal of the Second over the years), it’s only in comparatively recent times that these pieces have become widely accepted as masterpieces. The First was rarely performed, and the original version of the Second wasn’t played for many years, so that a proper “performance tradition” is only now being established for each of the Sonatas by a newer generation of super-virtuosi.
Rather like the case with Bruckner and several of his own symphonies, the Second Sonata’s original 1913 version was called to question by Rachmmaninov himself, who drastically revised it in 1931, cutting the original by six or seven minutes. For a long time afterwards interpreters either followed the composer’s revised score, or played a version that combined elements of the two editions, such as Horowitz made (with the composer’s blessing), and Hayroudinoff himself does here. The original 1913 version is finding increased favour with more interpreters, and recordings, among them Leslie Howard of the “complete Franz Liszt” fame, who states unequivocally in a note accompanying his own recording of the original, “…..no musician should ever give a passing thought to a “pick-and-mix” version of the two texts”. As with the aforementioned Bruckner Symphonies, it may well happen in time that the various combined-edition versions will come to be regarded as curiosities next to either the original or composer-made revised version – all part of the work’s overall genesis and process of acceptance!
Hayroudinoff’s present recording certainly contributes to that process in the case of both of the sonatas, even if he takes little heed of Leslie Howard’s comments regarding the Second Sonata, by offering his own “amalgam” of the two versions, obviously from deep-rooted conviction……
“I strongly believe that in his quest for conciseness, Rachmaninov excised so much in the revised edition of the Sonata that the structure of the work suffered. Where I felt that some of the logic of the continuity of ideas was compromised, I discreetly reinstated them from the original edition. I hope that the listener will not judge me as an insolent desecrator. I did this out of love for this extraordinary work, and with the humble intention to restore its coherence……” (Rustem Hayroudinoff)
Even if Rachmaninov aficionados reading this review agree with Leslie Howard’s negative opinion regarding the “hybridisation” of the Sonata, they should, in my opinion, still try and hear Hayroudinoff’s extraordinary playing of it, irrespective of the pianist’s own cross-references to the Sonata’s original edition. With the chromatic descent that opens the work, Hayroudinoff emphatically plunges the listener into a world of unique sensibility at once expansive and volatile, each note imbued with purpose and “attitude” which gives both expansiveness and weight to those opening declamations and the tremendous “rolling” crescendi whose peaks then fall away so resonantly and ambiently before the second subject’s heart-easing lyricism (to my ears a precursor of the Fourth Piano Concerto’s similarly bitter-sweet melodic outpourings).
Hayroudinoff’s innate sense of the music’s organic flow allowed both the music’s tenderness and pent-up energies to interact, bringing out the “growing” of the downwardly chromatic motif with ever-increasing insistence to the point where the sounds transcendentally became as sonorous church bells (one of a number of recurring influences of Rachmaninov’s compositional life), linking the Sonata to another work from that same time, his choral symphony “The Bells”.
Seemingly from out of the air Hayroudinoff floated the notes which set the second movement on its course, patiently building the music’s richly-laden decorative aspect towards, firstly, a full-throated melodic peroration, and then another bell-like evocation, this time darker and disturbingly remorseless. After delivering panic-stricken flourishes of shriller voices in response, the pianist brought a beautifully consoling order to the uneasy resonance of echoes and consoling voices, a “calm before the storm” aspect which heightened the effect of the third movement’s onslaught!
An almost militaristic aspect dominated the opening, Hayroudinoff’s incredible strength and dexterity driving the music forward excitingly, though with playing always alive to quixotic changes of mood, with their attendant variations of touch and sonority. Again, I thought the pianist’s rendering of the music’s different facets extraordinary – here bound together with an alchemic sense of ongoing purpose, a living quality which quickened this listener’s senses as well as the emotions and the intellect. Still, overwhelming as the result was, the playing’s illuminating quality left part of me wishing that Hayroudinoff had “gone for broke” and given us the original 1913 version of the music.
Thankfully no such lasting equivocations affect the music of the First Piano Sonata, composed in 1907 when Rachmaninov was in Dresden, simultaneously writing his Second Symphony and his opera “Monna Vanna”. The sonata has the same epic proportions as the symphony, and Rachmaninov characteristically expressed dissatisfaction with both works on their completion, and even after publication of the symphony suggesting numerous cuts for performers to apply. Of course, in the wake of the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in 1897, it was perhaps understandable that the composer would, even after the new symphony’s initial success, “lose his nerve” in the face of eventual critical disparagement, the upshot being that his suggested cuts were “sanctioned” and invariably followed in subsequent performances up until the late 1960s/early70s when the work at last began to be played “complete” once again!
A different fate awaited its “companion piece”, the D Minor Piano Sonata, which, while maintaining its content since its publication in 1908, had already been cut extensively by a worried composer after a “trial performance”. Describing the work in a letter to a friend as “wild and endlessly long”, Rachmaninov remarked ruefully that “no-one will ever play this work” due to its “dubious musical merit”. Mostly non-committal regarding any “programme” or other source of inspiration for his compositions, the composer let it slip in the same letter that the work’s “idea” was made up of “three contrasting characters from a work of world literature”. He refrained, however, from telling the sonata’s first public interpreter, Konstantin Igumnov, until AFTER the latter had performed the work a few times, that the “work of world literature” was Goethe’s “Faust”, and each of the three movements related to a particular character in the story, as was the case with Liszt’s “Faust” Symphony.
Hayroudinoff tells us that he believes an awareness of Rachmaninov’s original programme is a key to understanding the complexities of this work – Rachmaninov said as much in another statement from the letter quoted above – “…..I am beginning to think that, if I were to reveal the programme, the Sonata would become much more comprehensible…..”. The pianist quotes from Faust’s monologue at the beginning of the play, one which expresses the character’s inner conflict, and explains his actions throughout the drama’s course – Faust speaks of his “two souls”, one loving the world, the other longing for higher things “beyond the dust”. Thus, in his playing, Hayroudinoff stressed certain themes that for him illustrated this conflict, making the music’s trajectories throughout the “Faust” movement interact and confront one another in the most visceral and dramatic ways, though always preserving the grand sweep of the whole, demonstrating something of that ability which Sviatoslav Richter’s teacher Heinrich Neuhaus described his pupil as having – that ability to soar above the whole work, even one of gigantic proportions, with an eagle’s flight, and take it all in at a single glance with incredible speed.
In the second “Gretchen” movement, there’s straightaway a sense of a young girl’s innocence and purity, in tandem with a quickening of impulsive longing as the line is “counterpointed” by a would-be lover’s voice, real or imagined, the long-breathed themes encircled and sensitised by the sinuous patterning of the accompaniments, and intensified in feeling by ecstatically elongated trills. Hayroudinoff here showed himself equally at home with evocations of tenderness and sensitivity as with brilliance and strength, as the lovers’ union reached a kind of fulfilment, before the music unhurriedly returned both the characters and their intentions to the imaginations’ shadows.
Characterising in his accompanying notes the sonata’s final movement as “the realm of Mephistopheles”, Hayroudinoff then made the word flesh with playing of staggering bravado, giving the “Spirit of Negation” all the swagger and energy that accompanied his quest for possession of Faust’s soul. Suggestions, echoes and variants of the Latin hymn “Dies Irae” abounded as the forces of good and evil, and light and darkness did battle, Rachmaninov’s astounding vision here put across with unsurpassed conviction and irresistible command by the pianist.
This issue, in my view, takes its place among the great Rachmaninov recordings of recent times, a number of which feature the same two-sonata coupling (from Xiayn Wang, Leslie Howard, Nikolai Lugansky and Alexis Weissenberg, by way of example, along with a recent reissue of John Ogdon’s famous 1968 RCA recording). With the advocacy of such illustrious names as these, along with that of Rustem Hayroudinoff’s, the shade of the composer may well rest contentedly at last regarding this vindication of two of his greatest compositions.