Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No 1, Op 28; four Preludes from Op 32 (Lukas Geniušas)
Tuesday, November 14, 2023
This new recording presents the sonata in its original form before Rachmaninoff imposed cuts prior to the premiere
This is a very significant new release from Lukas Geniušas. If you read Jeremy Nicholas’s fascinating piece in the October issue of IP, ‘Discovering Rachmaninoff’s First Sonata’, you’ll already know of the complex and convoluted history of this large, Faustian work, composed in Dresden in 1906-07 at the height of Rachmaninoff’s most productive period. For some reason, the sensitive and self-deprecating composer seems to have abandoned the sonata before the First World War and never played it in public during his later American career. I’ve admired this work since hearing John Ogdon’s pioneering RCA account from 1967, for many years the only version available. Since then, there have been better recordings from pianists including Nikolai Lugansky, Boris Berezovsky, Alexandre Kantorow and Steven Osborne, which have brought this early masterpiece into the light – and not before time. But this new recording presents the sonata in its original form before Rachmaninoff imposed cuts suggested by Konstantin Igumnov prior to the premiere.
Rachmaninov often edited his works, sometimes tightening the form or eliminating superfluous passages. In these cases, such as the 1917 revision of the First Concerto, the results can be very effective, but where he cuts simply to reduce the duration, such as his butchery of the Fourth Concerto and the Second Sonata, the results massively compromise the sweep and grandeur of the works. In his revision of the First Sonata the cuts aren’t quite so consequential, although he reduces the duration from 45 minutes down to the still-substantial 35 minutes that we know from the published version.
For Geniušas, presenting the original version – played from Rachmaninoff’s autograph score – is clearly a labour of love, which has the added frisson of being recorded on Rachmaninov’s own 1933 Steinway D in his music room at the Villa Senar in Switzerland. There have been other recordings made on the composer’s piano, notably Mikhail Pletnev’s ‘Hommage à Rachmaninoff’ (DG, 1999) and Denis Matsuev’s ‘Unknown Rachmaninov’ (RCA, 2007), but in this new issue, the 90-year-old instrument – a 60th-birthday gift from Steinway – sounds in much better shape. The power and sonority of the bass and tenor are still stupendous and although the treble isn’t quite so sparkling as it might have been in Rachmaninov’s day, there is still an emotional response to hearing a great and orphaned work played on the piano that gave life to the Paganini Rhapsody and the Third Symphony. Of Geniušas’s playing I have nothing but praise: this is a masterly performance of the First Sonata, complemented by four well-chosen and sensitively played Preludes from the Op 32 set. Is the original version better than the published version? That’s debatable, but this is an issue I wouldn’t be without.
Review appeared in November 2023 issue of International Piano