Leslie Howard has this year received a lot of publicity for his complete recordings of the Liszt oeuvre for solo piano. Howard is clearly very fond of the virtuoso composers because Rakhmaninov was also an extraordinary pianist, helped by his enormous reach. Technically Howard knows no boundaries and he is up there with the best.
The first sonata is not standard repertoire and seldom heard but I can see why Howard has taken a shine to it.
Rakhmaninov's programme is based on Goethe's Faust and that was one of Franz Liszt's favourite themes as well. The second movement is the most immediate and appealing. The third movement practically hurtles along, but Howard never allows it to become cluttered and you can hear the drama unfold.
Howard's elasticity and rhythmic poise really come to the fore in the more exciting and romantic second sonata, here played in its original, grandiose version. The non allegro-lento movement is a kind of meditative farewell to the old Russia and there is a sense of "for whom the bell tolls". And yet this sonata never feels sentimental in Howard's treatment. The dry tone that sometime mars his interpretations is also completely absent.
As always with Melba releases the booklet is exemplary and the sound superb. Howard has written the essay himself with his customary authority.