There is seldom a disc that arrives for review that creates the excitement and anticipation this one did. I followed Howard’s long odyssey though every version of every piano work composed by Liszt (Hyperion 44501 [99CD] July/Aug 2011). Maybe this release is the start of a new series? I am familiar enough with Howard to know that the Rachmaninoff sonatas have been a part of his repertoire for some time now. He recorded them in 2009, along with four short pieces that immediately reminded me of his thorough approach to the music of Liszt.
Howard’s performances of the sonatas are uniformly excellent. His technique, as proved so many times in the Liszt series, is fully up to the exceptional demands they place on the pianist. Santiago Rodriguez once remarked that the demands of Sonata 1 were possibly even greater than in Piano Concerto 3. Howard’s musical intellect shines in these works where themes and motives are used and transformed through all three movements of each. My favorite performances of the sonatas were both recorded in 1968; No. 1 by John Ogdon (RCA LP) and Horowitz’s own version of Sonata 2 (Sony 53472). Both remain unsurpassed. Howard comes very close to Ogdon, but can’t knock him out of his number one spot. Howard plays the original 1913 version of Sonata 2 as well as anyone. I am pleased that he writes that pianists should choose the original or revised version, but should not pick and choose parts from each. To that I add that Horowitz did his version with authorization from the composer; and, since it is most likely the composer never saw the finished product, it should remain the Horowitz version. I would not object to someone performing that if complete credit were given to Horowitz, but we don’t need anyone else’s version of this work.
The three pieces from 1917 were written at the same time that Rachmaninoff was making his major revision of the Piano Concerto 1, and these were the last piano works he wrote before he left Russia for good. In Howard’s excellent essay he correctly points out that these pieces did not originally have any titles, and they logically belong together as a group. The first, a dark composition in D minor, was not published until 1973, where it was given the title Prelude. The second is known as the Oriental Sketch, published in 1938; and the final work was published in 1919 in The Etude magazine with the title Fragments.
The arrangement for piano of the Nunc Dimittis from the Vesper Mass is taken from the early (1934) biography of Rachmaninoff by Oskar von Riesemann, Rachmaninoff’s Recollections. Page 252 is a reproduction of the composer’s manuscript, supposedly taken from the archives of the Russian Music Publishers in Paris. Howard corrects this inaccuracy by noting that anything in the archives of the Editions Russes would be entirely in Russian, and the words on the manuscript are English. The logical scenario would be that Rachmaninoff made this transcription for inclusion in the biography. The Nunc Dimittis transcription is not simply a piano reduction of the parts, which Rachmaninoff did supply for the publication of his great choral work. The are some small differences in the arrangement of parts specifically as a piano piece. To my knowledge, this has never been recorded before, and it is omitted from any list of Rachmaninoff transcriptions that I have ever seen.
I will keep this on my active listening stack for quite some time, even though it annoys me that the composer’s name is spelled Rakhmaninov—not the way he spelled it. Even though there is no indication of it, I’ll also keep my fingers crossed that this could be the first in a series that has the potential to fill a number of holes in the recorded repertoire of Rachmaninoff.