Leslie Howard must surely be the most prolific pianist active today; his 100 CD (and still growing!) anthology of Liszt’s piano music recognised in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest recording project undertaken by any artist. His other great passion has been for Russian piano music, with several important premiere performances to his credit, and this is the first recording to offer the coupling of Rachmaninov’s two Piano Sonatas with the original published version of the Second, rather than its later revision. Rachmaninov was famously sensitive to criticism, so it was quite common for him to revisit works that had not been well-received. In the case of these two Sonatas – the First composed in 1907, the Second six years later – the public response to both appears to have been reasonably positive, so it is unclear why the composer quickly resolved to revise the Second; the reaction of contemporary performers to the work’s technical difficulty may have been a factor. When that (significantly shorter) revision did eventually appear in 1931, the original version fell out of currency and has only recently been restored to print – much preferring the original, Howard characterises it as “the last and one of the greatest of the Russian Romantic sonatas”. Ever the tireless musicologist, Howard has also thrown in four little-known miniatures, written by Rachmaninov for his own edification.
Clocking in at close to half an hour each, the Sonatas are large-scale, sprawling works – far removed from the tautly-composed miniatures of the Preludes. Often pensive and reflective, with stormy interludes and a darkly dramatic conclusion, the First is not really conducive to casual listening, its leisurely and unpredictable development rewarding closer attention. The bold opening flourish of the Second Sonata heralds a sunnier, more extrovert and lyrical work. It is clear that Howard is very much at home with this music – certainly, I find his Rachmaninov no less convincing than his Liszt, and compliments obviously can’t come much higher! As regards the recording, let me say only this – I own a lot of solo piano music, and have long agonised over which is the single finest recording. I agonise no more, because this is! A rare overseas venture for Melba, the recording was made at Potton Hall in the UK, a regular venue for Hyperion (and others), so its quality can only be explained by the involvement of star engineer Tony Faulkner. Great packaging sets the seal on another compelling release from this consistently innovative label.