If an all-Rachmaninoff album contains the immortal G Minor Prelude, that’s all you need to hear to figure out if the rest of it’s any good. How does pianist Sonya Bach tackle that piece on her new album, streaming at Spotify? With a staccato that’s forceful but short of a merciless attack on the “verse,” and then a luxuriant, languid approach to the “chorus” before the menace starts up again. Her big payoff delivers the expected chills; her outro is as devious as it should be. In a word, she nails it, in a fearlessly individualistic interpretation. After that, it would be a shock if the rest of the record was anything less than superb.
And it is. The centerpiece, the slightly condensed 1931 version of the Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, as well as a handful of preludes and the Six Moments Musicaux, are every bit as purposeful and inspired. The opening movement of the sonata is on the brisk and murky side, but that’s fine: this is turbulent, troubled music. And yet, when an anxious calm settles in, Bach works the bell-like dynamics magically, whether sepulchral or otherworldly and resonant.
The second movement is a vast, clear night as reflected on Rachmaninoff’s favorite Swiss lake, maybe. Much of the time Bach rides the pedal, letting those distant points of light shimmer for all they’re worth. Some Rachmaninoff fans may have issues with the conclusion, which again is on the fast side: Bach goes for overall disquiet rather than indulging in the occasional winking, romping phrase, and she maintains that steely focus. Vladimir Horowitz played it completely the opposite way; if the highest of the High Romantic is what you get out of this, cue up one of his versions instead.
The two remaining preludes here, in D and E flat, come from the composer’s first set, op. 2 (he would write another series later). The former is on the muted side, but that’s how Rachmaninoff himself played it, as a straightforward love ballad. The latter is also quiet and almost shockingly unvarnished: no over-the-top theatrics here, Bach using subtle rubato to let a quiet triumph unleash itself.
The Moments Musicaux are where Bach decides to revel more in the Romantic. No. 1 in B Minor has a persistent, wounded wintriness punctuated by judicious little crescendos: that little path through the snow toward the end will quietly break your heart.
No.2 in E flat minor has a similar starriness, a distant rather than intimate conversation but also a showcase for Bach’s spun-crystal legato. She gives a strikingly jaunty strut to parts of No.3 in B minor, when it’s not morose or achingly lyrical.
As she does a lot on this record, Bach takes a panoramic view of No.4 in E minor rather than making it a showcase for dramatic flourishes, beyond a slam-dunk coda. No.5 in D flat comes across as a distant precursor of the famous love theme from the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Bach closes with an a resonantly regal take of No.6 in C.
Linguistically speaking, Bach is correct in using “Rachmaninov” as a transliteration from the Russian. However, in innumerable reviews of music by the king of Russian Romanticism over the years, this blog has gone with the anglicized double F too many times to backtrack and do endless rounds of copy-and-replace.