Sergei Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Sonata has suffered a defeat of sorts, being more ruminative and program-specific than the second, even if the program is generally unknown. In fact it is a rehashing of the elements from Liszt’s Faust Symphony, where the three main characters of Goethe’s masterpiece are presented in the order of Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. This piece rejects the patented long, arching extended melodies that so mark the composer, and instead focuses on motivic moments of minute Impressionism, reflecting the most detailed look at each personage. It lacks the formal glue and dramatic thrust that we find in the Second Sonata, and as a result has suffered a relative dearth of recordings, though there are still about 15 or 16 available, though the ones I am familiar with lack the poetic nuances of this new Leslie Howard reading.
Howard of course is the intrepid scaler of Mount Liszt, having gone up to the mountaintop and back again with his complete traversal of the Hungarian’s complete piano works. Now he has settled in with Melba, and this first issue proves a champ all the way around. Howard knits together the varied threads of the Sonata No. 1 in a way that demands attention; his poetic impulses are such that he almost cannot fail to garner attention for the way that he caresses phrases that in other hands seem undoable. This is not Rachmaninoff bombast here in any sense of the word, unless one cares to consider movement 3 somewhat of that ilk; I do not. This whole piece is, in a way, one of the most Lisztian things the composer ever wrote, and has to be approached in that manner. Howard knows this, and has the credentials to pull off what might be the best-recorded and -played performance yet.
The B♭-Minor sonata is one of the staples of the repertoire and has enjoyed about 100 recordings, far fewer of real worth, from Van Cliburn to Horowitz (1931 version) to Hélène Grimaud (hybrid 1931 with 1913 elements) to Earl Wild’s marvelous reading. Each of these has much to offer, though it must be admitted that the revised 1931 offering, undertaken because many considered it unplayable, serves up the hothouse elements to the traditional “Romantic” pianists in spades. Many of these versions are enjoyable, and flashy, and downright exciting; but I think careful and considered familiarity with the original conception shows that the composer had it right the first time, and structurally the thing makes more sense and is a far better choice for performers in general. After all, it was completed in the same year as The Bells, widely considered one of Rachmaninoff’s greatest pieces (and one of three that he thought were his finest works), and elements of the choral work’s sound and fury—and extreme Russianness—find their way into the sonata as well.
Leslie Howard has made the decision that the original version is the way to go and gives us a power-packed performance fully persuasive in its clarity and gorgeous textures. If you love your Rach over-the-top this might not ring your particular bells, but it’s close enough for me and brings such richness in other categories that I would find it hard to live without.
Though not published together, his last three character pieces would be the final things he composed before leaving Russia in 1917. They are wonderful short works that show the composer as a fine miniaturist. The Song of Simeon from the op. 37 Vespers is the only piece from that masterwork that Rachmaninoff wrote out specifically as a piano work, and wished the whole movement to be performed at his funeral (it was not). The piece is a slight variant from the corresponding vocal score, but substantially the same. Howard brings the same sensitivities and execution to these works that he brings to the sonatas, rounding out an extremely attractive disc.