Together with Rachmaninoff: When the Inner Meets the Outer Ear

ItalyItaly  Rachmaninoff: Sonata no. 1 in D minor op. 28, Trio no. 2 in D minor op 9 Alexander Romanovsky (piano), Pavel Berman (violin), Enrico Dindo (cello), Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Sala Sinopoli 27.1.2012 (JB)

Chamber music players require at least two pairs of ears, one focused on what they are playing, the other on what is being played with them. Some would argue that a third pair is required to attend to the balance of the first two. But the situation is more complex than that. Every musician has a concept of how the music should sound, what is sometimes called the inner ear. The inner ear in the musically gifted is sometimes more powerful than the external ear: Beethoven’s inner ear developed in proportion to his loss of what we call actual hearing. Some very great performers have so focused on their inner ear as to largely exclude external hearing. Teachers of musical instruments will tell you that this risk is greater with profoundly musical students: they fail to hear what they are actually playing such is their forceful musical imagination. In order to get out of themselves what is fundamentally within they will also (to assist this process) accompany their efforts with a quiet, audible humming: witness the recordings of Glenn Gould or the late records of Clifford Curzon.

A further pair of ears (inner and outer) has to enter into the equation too to make it realistic: the composer’s. Like many other Russians involved in the creative process, Sergei Rachmaninoff was a troubled soul. Nowhere are his troubles made more audible than in his first piano sonata in D minor, op. 28. He was extremely reserved as well as full of self-doubt. Those two qualities are not usually on display. But in the first sonata they are. Almost painfully so.

He was in residence in Dresden with only his adored wife and daughter and without any distractions. But there were distractions going on within the man. He began with the idea of using the three main characters of Goethe’s Faust for the three movements – Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles – echoing, somewhat, Liszt’s formula for his Faust symphony. But as the work developed, it took on a cyclic form (whereby material announced in the first movement began to show up in the other two). In the end the only discernable influence of Goethe’s play is Mephistopheles. And of course this is a Mephistopheles who speaks to us directly and unwillingly, through the composer himself. Frightening stuff. No wonder it became Rachmaninoff’s least performed piano work.

The Ukrainian pianist, Alexander Romanovsky takes all this “straight on”. He may only have twenty-eight biological years but he plays with the conviction of a holy sage who has undergone all the suffering that life may offer. His performance is as powerful as pianism gets. He makes no apologies for the composer’s neurosis. And he is anxious that his audience should hear it. Melodies which begin are flooded out, sometimes by crashing chords, sometimes by being reduced to a whimper. Romanovsky is alert to every nuance. A communicator par excellence. He carries his audience every inch of the way of the thirty-five minutes of this troubled journey. Mephistopheles from within.

When his audience insisted on an encore, he gave us the final version of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz. Liszt, of course, externalises Mephistopheles, who had engaged his mind for all his life. There are moments when Liszt positively embraces the devil. And Mr. Romanovsky has more pianistic colours at his fingertips than the largest symphony orchestra. He is generous with them, too. His tempi are breathtakingly daring with every detail of the score exquisitely realised. Not since John Ogdon has there been such a thrilling performance of this demanding piece.

After the interval, Alexander Romanovsky was joined by two excellent colleagues, Pavel Berman (violin) and Enrico Dindo (cello) for the élégiaque Trio no. 2 in D minor. Messrs Berman and Dindo sounded as though they were enjoying Romanovsky’s playing as much as we were in the audience. Goodness knows there was little else for them to do. Wherever the piano is involved in Rachmaninoff, it always dominates. The poor violin and cello do get a sneeze and a cough periodically but this is predominantly a piano work. I recall an elderly friend accompanying some Rachmaninoff songs and in the introduction he was asked to give to the audience he permitted himself to say that these are really piano solos with voice accompaniment. Same here, Sergei.

Jack Buckley