June 26, 2012
This new disc, recorded by the Armenian-born young pianist Nareh Arghamanyan for PentaTone Classics, is devoted entirely to the music of Sergei Rachmaninov. Arghamanyan’s performance is appealing, passionately romantic, and marked by remarkable technical fluency. There are, nonetheless, a few less-successful episodes in this otherwise genuinely satisfying recital.
The most problematic issue is the liner notes. Franz Steiger provides adequate, if not particularly illuminating, annotations, but for some reason Arghamanyan chooses to duplicate them with her own sappy ramblings. Here is one example of her comments: “As the moon reflects the sun, thus Rachmaninoff reflects in his music the warmth of the eternal fire, the existence of which we can imagine only dimly, while attempting to disperse the mist…with our hands.”
Describing Rachmaninov’s Op. 3, she states that he wrote the first piece, “Elégie,” in memory of his teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, Anton Arensky, “whose sudden death left a hole in the heart of the young Rachmaninoff.” The impact of Arensky’s demise on Rachmaninov might have been devastating indeed, but it did not occur until 1906, or 14 years after Op. 3 had been completed.
Her program includes three musical sets: Morceaux de Fantaisie, Op. 3; Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 33; and Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Op. 42. Rachmaninov composed Op. 3 in 1892, when he was merely 19. It consists of five pieces: “Elégie,” “Prelude,” “Mélodie,” “Polichinelle,” and “Sérénade.” The “Prelude,” of course, is the famous C-sharp minor warhorse. As for “Mélodie” and “Sérénade,” Rachmaninov later revised them, sharply increasing the complexity of musical texture and harmonic language. Arghamanyan recorded these late, undeservedly less-familiar versions, which were published in 1940.
The listener will be much better off disregarding the pianist’s writing altogether and concentrating solely on what she does best — namely, playing her instrument.
Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 33, written in 1911, are structurally far more complicated and unpredictable than Rachmaninov’s earlier compositions. And, conceived as demonstrably virtuosic pieces, the Etudes are technically quite challenging — though not as daunting as the next set of Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39. In the accompanying booklet, the track listing for Op. 33 may look perplexing, however: the Etudes are numbered from No. 1 to No. 9, but there are only eight of them in toto, since there is no No. 4. Furthermore, Nos. 3 and 5 are marked as “Op. Posthumous,” even though they are both listed as part of Op. 33. The reason for such confusion is that Op. 33 has a tangled history.
Rachmaninov initially wrote nine pieces for Op. 33, but published only six of them in 1914. One of the removed works, in A minor, was consequently revised and included into Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39. The remaining two withdrawn pieces (in C minor and D minor) were published posthumously and are now commonly included into Op. 33 as Nos. 3 and 5, respectively (or, compounding the confusion, as Nos. 3 and 4 in some editions).
The final selection on the disc, Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42, written in 1931, is Rachmaninov’s last composition for solo piano. This expansive work consists of a somber Baroque theme (which Arcangelo Corelli used in 1700 but did not actually compose), 20 variations with an Intermezzo between variations 13 and 14, and an introspective coda.
As I’ve already mentioned, a couple of weaker spots are to be noted in Arghamanyan’s recording. For one, the Elégie receives a rather portentous reading; an excessively slow tempo does not always translate into interpretative depths, and it certainly doesn’t in this case. Similarly, the last Etude-Tableau in C-sharp minor seems to drag interminably and lacks direction.
Still, Arghamanyan’s accomplishments overall clearly outweigh these shortcomings. She has an innate feel for creating a spontaneous and natural melodic flow, which is crucial for sustaining Rachmaninov’s long, sinuous melodic lines. She effortlessly shifts from brooding, dark intensity to warm lyricism or droll capriciousness. No matter how intricate the composer’s polyphonic writing gets, she confidently navigates it so that competing thematic layers don’t jostle but rather complement each other.
This Super Audio CD (on Hybrid Multichannel) is accompanied by a bonus DVD featuring video clips of Arghamanyan playing Rachmaninov’s Prelude from Op. 3 and the first seven variations from the Corelli set, as well as her interview (in English) with the composer Hans Visser. She looks positively charming.