The Two Piano Suites – Six Morceaux, op. 11
Charles Owen, Katya Apekisheva, pianos
Avie Records, 2018
After the recording of Stravinsky’s piano ballets, the highly praised duo composed by Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva releases another fabulous album of Russian music, performing Sergey Rachmaninov’s works for two pianists with their skilful expressive playing.
The three works in this recording date to the final years of the 19th century or to the early years of the 20th – which means, during a difficult period of Rachmaninov’s life, starting from his beginnings as a composer (Suite no. 1 in G minor), his creative exhaustion and discouragement after the failure of his First Symphony (Six Morceaux, op. 11) and finally his emotional and artistic recovery after the success of the Second Symphony (Suite no. 2 in C major).
The Suite no. 1 in G minor (that Rachmaninov originally entitles Fantaisie-tableaux) set into music four poems by Lermontov, Byron, Tutchev and Khomyako. It was composed in 1893 and dedicated to Tchaikovsky, who was a fervent admirer of the younger composer and who was to die shortly after in the same year. Owen and Apekisheva perform this wonderful, suggestive work paying keen attention to the different setting of each piece. The rocking Barcarolle conjures up a Venetian gondola at dusk, is characterized by fluid, almost liquid sound, which creates a dreamy atmosphere, where everything but the silvery sounds that so effectively bring to mind water breaking over the gondola is indistinct and insubstantial.
The next movement, entitled Oh Night, Oh Love and inspired by the meeting of two lovers, accentuates the atmosphere of vagueness, but with a joyous nuance in the crystalline sounds of the piano. In Tears, the sound that previously was a harbinger of expectation becomes here an incessant manifestation of anguish, a feeling that Oxen and Apekisheva convey with vividness through high chords. In the last movement, Easter, the joyous bells toll is enchantingly represented by the two radiant pianists.
After the first sample of amazing technique and lustrous tone, Oxen and Apekisheva perform the Suite no. 2, composed between 1900 and 1901 and premiered in Moscow by Rachmaninov together with his former tutor, Aleksandr Ziloti. In the present recording, this Suite is performed with energy and vibrancy, which is particularly praiseworthy in the Introduction and in the fabulous Tarantella, but which is overwhelming in the brilliant Waltz, where virtuosic skill is marvellously counterbalanced by sweetness of sound. The Romance is apart in this context and it is a pause where it is possible to express quieter thoughts. The Suite no. 2 too offers then the chance for unlimited display of technical brilliance and Oxen and Apekisheva evidently enjoy this opportunity and carry it out with precision and skill.
The Six Morceaux are the final work of this recording. Dating to 1894, they were composed during a difficult period of Rachmaninov’s life. Oxen and Apekisheva perform them with sparkling sounds, emotional intensity and variety of feelings. The six pieces are a wonderful display of technical brilliance and the charming wit of Valse, the sombreness of Romance and the magnificent Glory are particularly remarkable.