It is hardly surprising that the Australian-born Leslie Howard has been typecast as a Liszt pianist: he recorded the Hungarian master’s complete piano works on 99 CDs. It is therefore interesting to hear him in other music, even if it is not far removed from his specialty. The two composers were both known as phenomenal lions of the keyboard, but what Rachmaninov also requires is depth of feeling. The last of the great Romantics, his piano music is imbued with a distinctively Russian angst. A full, deep tone is required to express the melancholy in his slow music and the barely concealed savagery in his turbulent climaxes.
Howard meets these demands, and puts them to good use in the earlier D minor Sonata (1907). In this work there is a sense of the composer stretching his wings: his habitual use of sequential passages in place of development is rather transparent, especially as the melodic content is not all that memorable. Howard finds moments of pure tranquillity in the slow movement but strikes me as heavy-handed in the rhythmically charged finale. The B flat minor Sonata is more mature. An entrancing slow movement opens with Scriabin-like chromatic harmony and later incorporates the composer’s beloved bells. He revised the sonata in 1931 but Howard (like most current pianists) plays the fresher 1913 original.
Everything about this disc is superior: sound, packaging, and Howard’s sympathetic performances of the sonatas and the affecting Piano Pieces, written as Rachmaninov was leaving his homeland for good.