Rachmaninov: Preludes, Études-Tableaux, etc review – refined, fluent playing

The Armenian-American pianist Sergei Babayan makes his solo debut on Deutsche Grammophon with this Rachmaninov recital. Born in 1961, he’s hardly a newcomer – he’s made a few appearances in the UK, including at the Proms in 2015, when he was one of the soloists in a marathon concert that included all five of Prokofiev’s piano concertos, and at the Wigmore Hall for a two-piano recital with Daniil Trifonov, who studied with Babayan for six years at the Cleveland Institute of Music in Ohio.

It’s that connection with the dazzling Trifonov, I suspect, that has encouraged DG to sign up Babayan. Two years ago, he partnered no less than Martha Argerich on a disc of Prokofiev transcriptions for two pianos, but what’s curious about this first solo effort is that the performances date back to 2009, yet apparently have never been issued anywhere before.

There are certainly no doubts about the fluency of Babayan’s playing, nor about his affinity with Rachmaninov, even if that is rather over-egged in the gushing liner notes. There’s a sense of cool refinement about everything he does, keeping plenty in reserve in even the most technically demanding passages, but the impression his playing leaves is often a rather neutral one, with little sense of a musical personality behind it. Perhaps the way in which his collection of miniatures has been assembled has done him no favours, though. Some of the juxtapositions of preludes from Rachmaninov’s two sets, Op 23 and Op 32, seem rather jarring, while other individual pieces make little impact, and the most compelling section of the disc comes in a sequence of three of the Études-Tableaux from Op 33 and Op 39, slightly more substantial pieces that give Babayan a bit more to get his teeth into.

This week’s other pick

Boris Giltburg is marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth by working his way chronologically through the 32 piano sonatas, many of which he has never played before. Videos of his performances are being streamed, and now Naxos is issuing the audio recordings as digital downloads at roughly monthly intervals for the rest of the year. The first two releases take in the three sonatas of the Op 2 set, the large-scale Op 7, in E flat, and the three of Op 10.

Giltburg’s approach to early Beethoven is refreshingly straightforward, and never contrived; textures are lean and clear, rubato never overdone. Just occasionally it can seem a bit too severe, with snatched staccatos, but there’s more than enough here to make it worthwhile following the instalments to come.