Saturday, January 09, 2016

Rachmaninoff's two piano sonatas

I picked up a CD of the two piano sonatas of Sergei Rachmaninoff, played by Nikolai Lugansky, on the Amrboisie (Ambrosia) label from France.

The Piano Sonata #1 in D Minor, Op. 28 (1908, 35 min) seems close in style to the Op. 32 preludes, and a little closer to the Piano Concerto #3 in the same key than to the more popular Second.
But Rachmaninoff wrote the music to be somewhat programmatic, after the example set by Liszt’s “A Faust Symphony”.  The outer movements make a lot of use of intervals of fourths and some allusions to the “Dies Irae”.  Still, the overall texture anticipates the nuances of the Third Concerto. The movements are marked “Allegro Moderato”, “Lento” and “Allegro Molto”.  The first movement slows down and ends peacefully in D Major.  The slow movement is in the relative F Major, not common for the composer. The Finale is the longest movement and seems to pick up on the first movement.  Toward the end, it seems to wind down as if to end peacefully, before a particularly violent outburst at the very end, staying in D Minor.  I wanted the last chord to be Major.

The Piano Sonata #2 in B-flat Minor (1913, rev. 1931), Op. 36, is shorter (24 minutes), and better known and somewhat popular, even though the harmonic style is a bit more remote, like the Fourth Concerto.     It has two basic versions.  Most pianists (like this one) prefer the original version without the cuts, although some take a few of the changes in the revision. Rachmaninoff even said he was inspired by the famous Chopin Sonata in the same key, as well as Tchaikovsky’s famous piano concerto.  The first movement (Allegro Agitato) is perhaps a bit like Chopin on steroids, but the movement winds down to a quiet ending in minor, with a curious reference to a motive from Scriabin’s “Black Mass”, composed about the same time.  The slow movement, in G, is marked “Non allegro; Lento” and shows some of the harmonic subtleties of the composer’s later music, although it’s always tonal. (I think Rachmaninoff was a bit interested in what Scriabin had done, but would not carry the experiments as far.  I also think he got some inspiration on how to build “big tune” closing climaxes out of seemingly frivolous material from the little played first Piano Concerto of Eugen d’Albert, a youthful work which may have been better known in the past than it is now). The Finale is a tour de force, ending in total triumph with virtuosity in B-flat Major, with a rush to the very end; it’s a crowd pleaser in real concerts.

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