It is hard to be indifferent about Rachmaninoff. I can understand the critics who deride his reactionary style, his self-indulgence, his sentimentality. But despite the solid intellectual marks against him, I cannot resist this music. Above all else, I find his work to be utterly honest and heartfelt. He has a unique voice, and he was a superb craftsman. Chances are, if you are reading this, I am preaching to the choir, and you already have recordings of this music, certainly the Sonata No. 2. Nevertheless, I find these performances to be uniquely compelling, powerfully shaped, and always in total deference to the composer.
Leslie Howard, born in Melbourne in 1948, is best known as a master of the music of Liszt, and the only pianist to have recorded all of the known piano music by the Hungarian master, occupying 97 discs!... Here, Howard is heard on an Australian label, named for that country’s most famous musical ambassador, which appears to be funded by some combination of government and private support. The production is lovely, including rich and natural recorded sound, a nice thick cardboard album, and insightful notes by the pianist.
The playing is an antidote to the kind of headstrong Rachmaninoff that was advocated, and then widely imitated, by Vladimir Horowitz. Since the composer himself anointed Horowitz as his finest champion, this approach carries an undeniable sense of authority about it. I would not want to be without it, especially for the sheer excitement it can engender. Horowitz’s final recording of the Piano Concerto No. 3, with Ormandy, may have its flaws, but the crashing energy, the sense of an imminent derailing of the Horowitz freight train, is electrifying. But that is not a word that describes Howard’s playing. His tempos are a shade slower than is the norm in the outer movements of the sonatas, but his superb lucidity and pearly tonality make for extremely satisfying listening. His control of the music’s pulse is completely natural, like human breathing. The apotheosis of Howard’s manner with Rachmaninoff is heard in the slow movements, which are supremely poetic, unhurried, yet flowing.
The brief three works from 1917, the last music Rachmaninoff wrote before leaving Russia forever, are dispatched with charm and vivacity. The Nunc dimittis is the composer’s transcription of one of his Vespers for chorus, ending the recital on a somber note. In a very crowded field, this is standout Rachmaninoff playing, and an easy entry on my 2011 Want List.