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Rachmaninov: Piano Sonatas 1 & 2 – review

10.11.12
Nikolai Lugansky
The Guardian (UK)

By Tim Ashley

The latest addition to Nikolai Lugansky's Rachmaninov discography is this recording of the two sonatas – big, exacting works, not without controversy. The First (1908) was triggered by Goethe's Faust, and though the narrative subject was soon officially dropped, the influence of Liszt's Faust Symphony looms large over its structure and emotional trajectory. Rachmaninov's doubts about length of the Second, premiered in 1913, led to his production of a shorter, less taxing version in 1931, leaving performers with awkward choices as to exactly what to play. Lugansky, like many of his predecessors, opts to conflate the two, keeping much of the original but incorporating passages from the less densely written revision. As always with his Rachmaninov, Lugansky's playing balances grand gestures with an immaculate sense of detail. It's a combination that works particularly well with the overt drama of the First Sonata, where his subtle rhythmic and emotional inflections add immensely to the gathering tension. His performance of the Second is altogether more restrained: the limpidity of the slow movement is exquisite in the extreme.