Leslie Howard captures the virile energy of the two piano sonatas with panache.
A strong case can be made for either of Rachmaninov’s two versions of the Second Piano Sonata. In the right hands, both of them can assert their impact. However, if there is greater clarity and concision in the 1931 revision, there is also a nagging feeling that Rachmaninov was on occasion just a little too liberal with his blue pencil in the first movement and (especially) the finale. Leslie Howard espouses the first version of 1913 on this disc and he does so with terrific panache in Rachmaninov’s bold, texturally intricate writing, allied to a very sensitive awareness of the rich, varied palette of keyboard colour. He also conveys the music’s virile energy, which carries the ear convincingly through those passages that the composer felt could be dispensed with. The finale in fact gains in breadth of argument and structural symmetry, particularly, as here, in a performance that is in complete control of the pianistic demands and of the architectural span.
Similarly the First Sonata, which Rachmaninov heavily edited before publication in 1908, is given a firm dramatic thrust and character by Howard, making this coupling of the two sonatas a highly desirable acquisition. Interestingly, he also includes the three solo pieces that Rachmaninov sketched in Moscow in November 1917, shortly before leaving Russia for the last time, the vivacious ‘Oriental Sketch’ framed by the “Andante ma non troppo” and ‘Fragments’ that speak of heartfelt introspection. Rachmaninov’s piano arrangement of the ‘Nunc dimittis’ from the All-Night Vigil is a poignant envoi.