A bounty of piano treats awaits the musical Russophile on this [disc] featuring Soviet-era works for the solo instrument. Murray McLachlan’s programme offers a colourful cross-section of composition by the household names of the era’ .
McLachlan, a well-known name to readers of the Journal, has amassed a distinguished discography dedicated to the lesser-known repertoire of the 20 th century. He has devoted entire discs to the piano music of, in turn, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Charles Camilleri, and John R. Williamson among others, as well as a host of notable Scottish figures. His highly acclaimed interpretations of the complete piano sonatas of Weinberg, Myaskovsky, Alexander Tcherepnin, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich have placed him at the forefront of Western interpreters of the Soviet/Russian repertoire.
McLachlan’s idiomatic connection to the works on the programme is clearly evident as he brings off each with complete authority. Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Third Sonata of 1945, the one famously recorded by Vladimir Horowitz, stakes a claim as a worthy if lesser-known brethren to Prokofiev’s ‘War Sonatas’. Nikolai Myaskovsky’s Song and Rhapsody is a true character piece that captures that composer’s propensity for spinning out long-limbed tunes that yearn for the
days of onion domes and samovars. Ronald Stevenson’s Recitative and Air (DSCH) finds no escape from its weary procession of inward turns until a snapping point leads to a final desolate utterance of the DSCH motto. McLachlan concludes his programme with Tschastuschki: Concerto for piano solo, Rodion Shchedrin’s 1999 solo piano rendition of his brilliant orchestral tour-de-force, Concerto for Orchestra No. 1, Naughty Limericks . Much of the effect of the original orchestral version rests upon the combination and rapid interplay of various instrumental sections, details that are not only compromised, but rather muddied in this very busy piano reduction. Those who already know the work in its orchestral garb will still take delight in hearing how the dazzling melodic overlays are realized and projected in McLachlan’s thrilling one-of-a-kind rendition.
Sometimes I wonder whether Shostakovich, in his youthful defiance, set out to write music’s most difficult piano sonata. For its melting pot of widely disparate styles and treacherously dense textures, the First Piano Sonata makes an excellent candidate for the honour. The performer is faced with the nearly impossible challenge of making sense of the score’s lethal terrain of rapidly changing episodes. One imagines Shostakovich would have taken vicarious delight in the triumphs and failures of the attempts.
For the most part, McLachlan’s aggressive approach yields good results. The disparate elements of the work gel thanks to the driving momentum and vigorous brilliance of his playing. At the same time, in the first and lengthiest section, the themes tend to get a bit muddied as a result of his pushing the tempi a little too strenuously. By way of concluding these breakneck passages, he sustains the fermata-marked chord in its final bars for a daring 42 seconds – an interval of recovery that will no doubt leave listeners drop-jawed, for better or worse. Martin Jones, without sacrificing similar measures of speed or exuberance, manages to sort out the individual ideas in this section with greater clarity. Both versions may be compared to the beautifully conceived one by Melvin Chen, who sees past the work’s expressionistic surface with a vibrant high romantic view, one whose daring rubati and frequent spotlighting provide the most colourful delineations of the work’s knobbly themes. Konstantin Scherbakov, on the other hand, provides a lurid how-not-to guide as he thrashes about with erratic tempi so as to render meaningless the sonata’s points of structural and emotional demarcation.
In the central slow section, McLachlan seems more preoccupied with maintaining the music’s forward pulse than with conjuring its dusky phantoms. He thus forfeits the subtle enchantment found in Chen’s more textured reading of the section. McLachlan’s tightly wrapped interpretation of the Sonata, though somewhat wanting in expressive detail, still consolidates and impresses with its iron will.
McLachlan fares better in his rendition of the Second Piano Sonata, discussed below in comparison with Lilia Boyadjieva’s recording. The sheer beauty of tone that Boyadjieva brings to the keyboard is of a calibre not often found in Shostakovich’s piano music. With its satin finish and pearl-like clarity, she casts a beguiling spell over her instrument as well as over the music on this programme.
Murray McLachlan and Lilia Boyadjieva each offer a sturdy performance of Shostakovich’s wartime Sonata No. 2. Both pianists evince no shortage of power or imagination in negotiating its challenging unconventional pages, though it is McLachlan who commands a firmer grasp of the work’s architecture. Boyadjieva’s more flexible tempi in the brittle rhythms of the opening Allegretto allow her to explore a wider range of mood than McLachlan’s. He, on the other hand, carries a more taut line and with it, a more steely spirit of determination. In the Largo , each pianist sidesteps the detached numbness one sometimes finds in other interpretations. Boyadjieva discovers uncanny beauty in the music’s achingly hesitant tones by underlining the music’s lyrical continuity, here with inspiring fluidity. McLachlan introduces more of an edge to the music, and thus, more definition. He plays the movement with a palpable sense of distress that rises to peak emotional moments.
Boyadjieva delivers a well-polished final movement as she embraces the various moods of the mighty variations in all manner of detail. McLachlan’s version, however, makes the stronger impression. Not only does he engage with the music more vigorously, he achieves a more unified vision, in part, by approaching each variation as a direct emotional consequence of the one preceding it. He builds the tension across Variations II and III so that the sharply punctuated chords in Variation IV and the rising tenor of Variation V become captivating plateaus of arrival.
While Boyadjieva gives very probing readings of these sections, she dwells more on their subtleties than on their cumulative effect. Only in McLachlan’s reading does the urgent prodding of Variation VI recall the panting two-note exchanges of the Allegro non troppo movement of Symphony No. 8, written the same year. The heightened tension allows McLachlan to plunge directly into the smoky sonorities that follow in Variation VII – an eerie reappearance of the ghosts from the sonata’s slow movement. The music’s emotional roller coaster takes yet another sharp turn as McLachlan evinces, with bold iambic strokes, the proud defiance of Variation VIII. Both pianists capture the utter despondency of Variation IX with its whispering tones and concluding grief-bearing ritardando, leading to the valedictory flourish of the last variation. However it is McLachlan in these final sections who leaves listeners with the sense of having more ardently weathered the journey.
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