Piano Sonata op.14 (2nd. version) and Piano Suite No.4 op.91.
Adrian Ruiz, piano
Genesis GCD118 2012 DDD 67:45
Here is a very welcome release. Way back in the 1970s Genesis Records was in the forefront of the romantic revival and amongst their pioneering LPs were two which featured music by Raff: the Piano Concerto and the Piano Suite in D minor. The pianist on the latter was the youthful Adrian Ruiz, who demonstrated a phenomenal technique in several reliably persuasive and satisfying performances for Genesis. For a time he and Michael Ponti were the twin pianistic poles of the movement to resurrect forgotten romantics and Ruiz's performances were, for me at least, always preferable: less driven and more musical than his rival's, while no less exciting when they needed to be.
On this new CD that 1971 recording of the Fourth Piano Suite is now reissued, digitally remastered, and it's coupled with a brand new recording of the second, 1881, version of the Piano Sonata op.14 recently laid down by Ruiz, who is now in his mid 70s. It would be quite miraculous given the forty-odd year gap between the performances if this wasn't a CD of two halves and so indeed it proves to be.
First the Suite, which at 38 minutes duration is by some margin the larger work on the CD and is programmed first. It's time to nail my colours to the mast here and say that Ruiz' performance has always been the benchmark by which I judge other recordings of this grand work. There have been three on CD: from Morton Estrin, Andrea Carnevalli (review) and Alexander Zolotarev (review). Despite its age and minor reservations about the recording itself, Ruiz' performance still shines through as the one which best captures the many facets of this great work. Overall, Zolotarev comes closest to Ruiz but his pace is generally more deliberate and portentous. He lacks Ruiz' lightness of touch and momentum in the opening Fantasia e Fuga and his sheer playfulness and dazzling virtuosity in the Giga con Variazioni. In this impressive set of variations Ruiz clearly revels in the inventiveness of Raff's writing and we are treated to a showcase of pianism which, for all its technical prowess, never borders on mere virtuosity; there is poetry and passion here aplenty. It is in the third movement Cavatina where Ruiz has most competition. His reading is a powerful one which lends the work great gravitas and takes one to a climax of profound emotional intensity. What he just misses with his sometimes foursquare phrasing, however, is that characteristically Raffian emotion of restrained regret which both Zolotarev and, to a degree, Carnevalli manage to capture, even though their performances lack the lightness of touch which Ruiz periodically injects to relieve the tension. If you don't know the piece then you'll find Ruiz' Cavatina a powerful and involving listen even though it could be a tad more subtle.
The Marcia finale in his hands is a tour de force, exciting, fast-paced but not at all as trite as it threatens to be in Estrin's rendition or as deliberate as Carnevalli makes it. In the closing bars Ruiz builds it up to something akin to the monumentality of the Great Gate of Kiev before treating us to a glittering conclusion. The remastered recording itself is perhaps not quite as spacious as the best modern ones and I would have preferred the piano to be not quite so closely miked but overall it is more than acceptable given its age. Sensibly, Genesis reprint Frank Cooper's notes from the original LP which concentrate more on Raff's biography than the Suite, but that was what was needed in 1971. In sum, this is a hugely satisfying performance which at last does this magnificent work justice. It's great that it's now available on CD for a new generation of Raff enthusiasts and can be recommended without hesitation.
Raff's recomposed Piano Sonata is his final work for the instrument, written in 1881, just a few months before his death. By his standards it can seem an austere and often sombre work and Valentina Seferinova's 2002 account of it on Cameo Classics (review) has proved to be a generally reliable, if perhaps sometimes a little safe, account which emphasised the work's seriousness. Now we have Adrian Ruiz' take on the piece and it couldn't be more different. Indeed, it is safe to say that this is a performance which is guaranteed to divide opinion.
Seferinova's seriousness is not for Ruiz. For him the Sonata is as much of a virtuoso showcase as the Suite and nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening Allegro where he shaves two minutes off her timing - almost 20% faster! Of course, overall timings don't tell the whole story, but in this case it gives a good indication of what we're in for. It's a white knuckle ride as Ruiz literally pounds out the music. It's tumultuous and undeniably exciting but also borders quite often on the mechanical. The contrast with his performance of the Suite is telling: the septuagenarian still has a powerful and, even now, generally reliable technique but it isn't just about technique and what is sadly lacking in many passages is any beauty of tone or lyricism. This is hard driven stuff. There's not that much difference between him and Seferinova in the Allegro molto Scherzo, except that her lighter touch gives the music a less relentless character and her phrasing in the trio is much more poetic. On the other hand, Ruiz brings out the demonic in the music to better effect and his ending is altogether cheekier. He takes the Larghetto at a slower tempo than Seferinova and here we hear more of the pianist of forty years ago. His arched phrasing moulds the long drawn out melody nicely but the accompaniment is sometimes clumsy and he often lingers where Seferinova moves things on to better effect. What is lacking in both performances, though, is any feeling of real warmth or affection for the music. The Allegro finale sees Ruiz return to the edge-of-seat delivery which he adopted in the first two movements. It will leave you breathless, sometimes wondering whether his technique is still up to the frantic demands he makes of it. The recording itself is rather dry, lacking the Suite's 40 year old golden ambiance and emphasising the hardness of Ruiz' playing. In the booklet Genesis have reprinted this web site's description of the Piano Sonata.
I find myself quite divided by Ruiz' performance of the Sonata. It is definitely an exciting listen and it breathes new life into a work which I have always found difficult to love. On the other hand, I'm not sure if it's an interpretation which I want to live with; the playing often borders on the mechanical and hard driven and there is precious little warmth or lyricism in it. Indeed, the contrast between the two performances and their recordings is quite profound and, whilst Ruiz is streets ahead of the field in the Piano Suite, after repeated listenings on balance I prefer Seferinova in the Sonata. That said, Ruiz' magical interpretation of the Piano Suite No.4 is recommendation enough for this CD and Genesis deserve acclaim for reissuing it.
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