Notes and Editorial Reviews
Variations on a Theme of Corelli.
op. 23/4, 5; op. 32/10, 12.
Piano Sonata No. 2
: op. 33/3; op. 39/1, 3, 5
Alexei Volodin (pn)
CHALLENGE 72587 (77:07)
Alexei Volodin’s Rachmaninoff recital overlaps with that of another
Russian-born pianist of roughly the same age, Vassily Primakov, whose recording on the Bridge label was warmly received by several
reviewers, myself included, in 35:2. Both pianists perform the
, and all five of the preludes on Volodin’s disc are also included by Primakov. By strange coincidence, the total duration of Volodin’s program, 77:07, is exactly the same as that of Primakov. Timings of individual works, on the other hand, are consistently longer in Primakov’s renditions, and sometimes substantially so. Several reviewers have noted this penchant for deliberation, a function of Primakov’s “thoughtful, nuanced, expressive approach” and “liberal use of rubato and tempo modification,” as I myself put it. Volodin’s traversal of the
, at 18:46, is nearly two minutes shorter than Primakov’s (20:42) and is considerably more kinetic. Volodin’s approach may be more conventional, but it is fluent, highly accomplished, and very effective. Where Primakov offers more variety, Volodin is instead more integrated. Volodin is more sparing in his use of rubato and much less likely to draw out the tempo for expressive purposes, but he is still able to characterize the quieter, more contemplative sections of the score with sensitivity. He often takes the faster sections at a headlong pace and there displays a dazzling technique. Here and elsewhere in the program, in densely scored, climactic passages he produces a sound that is at once massive, powerful, and clear. Like Primakov, he tends to allow the left hand a more than usual prominence, which gives his playing an unusually solid underpinning at the bottom end.
The very familiar Prelude in C? Minor (op. 3/2) is the only work in which I found Primakov’s approach less than satisfying when reviewing his recording. His constant tempo adjustments then seemed fussy in that context, but upon rehearing I find that the performance has all the now-familiar Primakov virtues and that they work as well here as elsewhere in his recital. Rachmaninoff himself, recorded in 1928 (Naxos), is also quite free, although at a quicker overall pace, as is Emil Gilels, recorded in 1977 (Yedang). Volodin’s rendition is arresting. He holds the opening phrase for an unusually long time, then shapes the main theme effectively, with judicious rubato and weighting, maintaining a strong sense of linear continuity. He charges through the middle section at a blistering pace and is extremely forceful, even violent, in the reprise of the main theme. The transition to a quiet, brooding, icily calm closing is very well controlled. Nikolai Lugansky’s comparatively steady and straightforward reading, on Erato, with a central outburst that is less frenetic and desperate but more controlled than Volodin’s, is also quite effective. In the D-Major Prelude, op. 23/4, Primakov is intense and mysterious, and although his traversal lasts a full minute longer than Volodin’s, it never seems too slow. Sviatoslav Richter (Regis), faster than either, is urgent and passionate, with a towering climax. Volodin’s lightly inflected reading keeps moving and is appropriately serene, if less strongly characterized than the other two. But in the martial G-Minor Prelude, op. 23/5, Volodin is commanding indeed, approaching Richter in that respect. Volodin begins resolutely and builds powerful momentum, with admirable digital clarity, massive tonal weight, and scrupulous attention to phrasing and accents. His overall timing is almost exactly the same as those of Richter and Gilels (the latter in a 1977 live performance marred by some obvious wrong notes), although there are differences in tempo among the three within the piece. Primakov as usual is completely different, de-emphasizing the militant, martial quality of this Prelude in favor of a more varied and nuanced approach. Volodin displays plenty of nuance, but also dazzling fluency in rapid passages in the somewhat Debussian B-Minor Prelude (op. 32/10), with well-chosen pacing midway between the greater urgency of Richter and the greater deliberation of Primakov. Excellent, too, is Volodin’s reading of the familiar G?-Minor Prelude (op. 32/12), not as creatively shaped as Primakov’s but fluent and once again judiciously nuanced.
In notes for his recording of the Sonata No. 2, on another Bridge disc, Primakov remarks that his rendition has been criticized for lacking “enough aggression.” I think that the aggression is quite sufficient in those portions of the score that call for it but relieved by an exquisite lyricism in the quiet and poignant sections of the piece, such as the second theme of the first movement and much of the slow movement. No one would accuse Volodin of being short on aggression. If he is less eloquently expressive than Primakov in the lyrical sections, his darkly colored, bass-oriented sonority and powerful vertical stresses add a different dimension to his performance. Needless to say, he is on top of all the technical challenges, and he maintains clarity of texture even in the most demanding passages. Raffi Besalyan’s more even-keeled reading (ICM, reviewed in 36:2) also has a lot of merit. All three pianists perform the work in its 1931 revision and succeed in achieving integration and coherence in what can sometimes seem an episodic work. I must add, however, that I am unable to understand the objections to this work raised by some in
and elsewhere. It seems to me of a piece with the rest of Rachmaninoff’s piano writing.
in C Minor, op. 33/3, Volodin is once again nuanced without being mannered and holds this slow five-minute piece together well, exploring its dark colorations with a balance that never slights the left hand. In op. 39/1, also in C Minor, Volodin’s rendition is better articulated, better balanced, and better recorded than Vladimir Ashkenazy’s (Decca), if not so smoothly and relentlessly onrushing as Richter’s. Volodin is once again not so headlong as Richter (or Ashkenazy, or Lugansky, the latter on Brilliant) in the familiar
in F? Minor, op. 39/3, but his performance is exuberant, clearly articulated, and effectively shaped, and in this case I prefer it to all of the competing versions cited. In the dense textures of the E?-Minor
, op. 39/5, superior clarity gives Volodin the advantage over Ashkenazy and Lugansky.
Volodin’s excellent performances are enhanced by exceptionally vivid and realistic recorded sound, with a wide dynamic and frequency range, a spacious acoustic, and excellent clarity of texture. Notes in English and German provide biographical information on the composer and the pianist but no discussion of the music.
This release is very well filled with inventive, colorful, and evocative music superbly crafted for the piano, performed with distinction and vividly recorded. It joins the aforementioned Richter and Primakov recitals on my short list of essential Rachmaninoff recordings.
FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
Works on This Recording
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 by Sergey Rachmaninov
Alexei Volodin (Piano)
Written: 1913; Russia
Venue: Beethovensaal, Hannover Congress Centrum
Length: 19 Minutes 13 Secs.
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