Fresh Insights, Sergei Rachmaninoff
The MHS Review 356 Vol 9, No 14 1985
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Donald R. Vroon, American Record Guide (May/June 1985)
COMPLETE WORKS FOR PIANO
Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 28; Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 36; Ten Preludes, Op. 23.
Francois-Joel Thiollier, Piano
The preludes are Russian Chopin with touches of Liszt. Some are mostly sound and fury, some are sweet and delicate, and some are similar to etudes in the technical challenge they pose. Listening to the whole batch together leaves one with the same basic impressions and emotions as Chopin's Opus 28. All of Rachmaninoff's preludes have been recorded by Anievas, Ponti and Ashkenazy; of these the last is irreplaceable. There's also a fine Quintessence record of Richter playing 13 of them; but as with any selection, those may not be your favorites out of the 24. Thiollier stacks up quite well in this exalted company. Each prelude is given its own special treatment. In some, the playing is so powerful I worried about the poor piano. Others are treated most delicately and sensitively. All are brilliantly articulated. This is utterly pianistic music, written by a first-class virtuoso for his own use; Thiollier handles it beautifully.
The sonatas are the same kind of music, but with a larger canvas their impact is greater. Both have the same plan: a powerful first movement; a gentle, more melodic second; and a wild, ferocious third movement that taxes pianist and piano to the full. I find the first the more moving, perhaps because it's less familiar to me. The second is undeniably exciting. The composer's own revision, not that of Horowitz, is played here.
Again, the artistry is stunning. I was frankly amazed to find that I prefer this recording to the Horowitz one (RCA; the Columbia seems out of print). Horowitz rushes so--he wants to get more notes into less time! And RCA's piano sound lacks the clarity of this MHS.
Perhaps clarity is the point here. No other recording of any of these works has the presence and
sheer impact of this one. Yes, the percussive parts are truly percussive: he beats the piano black and blue! And the sound at such times becomes hard, even frightening. Ashkenazy (or maybe his engineers) worries more about maintaining beautiful tone. But for Rachmaninoff I can accept Thiollier's hardness for the visceral excitement, close to fear, that it produces in me. At such moments the clarity adds to the terror; at other times it illuminates a piece, bringing fresh insights and new understanding.
Thiollier was born in Paris and studied at the conservatory there, but also at Juilliard, where he
walked away with top honors in everything. He went on to win eight major piano prizes, in places like Brussels and Moscow. He has performed in 30 countries, but is little known here. From the evidence of this album, his command of the piano is nearly absolute. A worthy purveyor of Rachmaninoff! This is Volume Ill; now I must look for I and II.