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The Two Piano Sonatas

Lydia Jardon, piano


Sonata n°1 opus 28 in D minor

Allegro moderato
Allegro molto

Sonata n°2 opus 36 in B flat minor

Allegro agitato
Non allegro - Lento
L’istesso tempo - Allegro molto

Recorded at Poissy Theatre, on 15, 16 September and on 2nd November 1999

AR RE-SE 2002-4

Fin de siècle : A total opera

The 19th century ended in a mood of restlessness, pregnant with possibilities: in every field the search was on for the style and face to fit the age. Debussy celebrated the first years of the twentieth century with Pelléas et Mélisande. In France “L’Art Nouveau”, in Germany the “Jugendstil” brought forth a world of objects and designs without relief, from whence sprang figures of animals and plants. In painting, fauvism, cubism and futurism lent lustre to a variegated contest between colours and style, a turmoil of bodies transfixed in the moment of expression. In architecture, the building of the Sagrada Familia, the Barcelona cathedral designed by Antonio Gaudi, revealed a religious edifice composed of volcanic shapes set with mineral colours, of rails of hammered iron through which the fabric is woven in multiple convulsions. From 1900 to 1913, the rhythm was universal and sculpture advanced in concert with music. At the moment when the Ballets Russes and their glittering harmonies first burst on Paris, architects and decorators were feeling the initial pangs of what rapidly became a romantic passion for industry and machinery. In 1912 Vienna resounded to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and the mysteries of atonal sound. Then came Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the precursor of jazz, which was to regenerate the period after the Great War and transform percussion into a rhythmic act. The 20th century thus revealed itself like a score in which each voice embodied a singular art taking its place in the universal polyphony. This explains the “musicalist” attempt by Kandinsky and Kupka to create a total opera by painting the music at the point where the scenery would contribute to the balance of the score, and to found a visible link between the body of the painter, on the watch for colour, and that of the musician, perceived as a sound box reverberating with rhythm and melody.

At the time when this era was asserting its character and influence, Rachmaninov was considered a musician of the past, a folklorist of the Russian soul in the tradition of Anton Rubinstein and Tchaikowsky. His determination to defend a romanticism submerged by the rise in atonal music passed for a rearguard action. Did he not denounce Debussy and Prokofiev for their “absence of melody”? He proclaimed that “the heart is in the process of becoming an atrophied organ, it is no longer used and will soon be no more than a simple curiosity”. And yet Rachmaninov adored jazz. In 1924, he was passionately enthusiastic about Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which he applauded in New York with Stravinsky, Heifetz and Kreisler. In 1915, during a series of concerts devoted to Scriabin, Rachmaninov renewed his contacts with the other aspect of his genius: the art of the piano. He was a leading performer until he was 70. He had an immense physical presence; his fingering was a lesson in interpretation, the best way of exploring his instrumental vision. His hand could stretch intervals of a twelfth without prejudice to a single note. The character of each finger stood out clearly, and every gesture was in perfect accord with the meaning of the music. For Rachmaninov, a successful interpretation must inexorably lead to the point of balance, the central axis of the work on which the structure and the vigour of the score are focused. It is the pianist’s role to build up his performance in order to reveal this point with the utmost naturalness, creating this “germination by the fingers” that fertilises the keyboard, producing a momentum that, in Rachmaninov’s own words, “is like bursting through the tape at the end of a race”.

The music of an “emotional athlete”

The two sonatas composed between 1900 and 1913 are an extravagant example of his pianistic ability and the world of sounds he created. They illustrate the struggle of a composer who is rediscovering his instrument as he brings the art of the piano in line with the spirit of the century. Rachmaninov pushed the instrument to the limits of its possibilities. This is the creation of an “emotional athlete” as defined by Antonin Artaud: a pianist who through composition and interpretation “uses his emotions as the wrestler uses his muscles”.

In these two sonatas, Rachmaninov has often been accused of abandoning simplicity in favour of a riot of effects and a profusion of ornament, but listen to what Lydia Jardon has to say. “In these two works, the performer is confronted with monumental phrases and despite the enormous, over-loaded left hands, he must make them live without getting bogged down in the breakdown of the themes. It is impossible to give everything value without sacrificing the supremacy of the song of the right hand, haunted by a sort of cerebral orientalism. When I began to work, these repetitive phrasings and harmonic obsessions left me perplexed. I wondered how to occupy the exceptional density of the score without creating boredom, since in the second sonata, and still more in the first, the same themes return unceasingly in different tonalities. There are bass notes in these two sonatas which one has to search for right to the farthest notes of the piano. It seemed to me the danger lay in giving them an importance that would damage the cohesion and the sound balance and make the construction noisy rather than expressive. To avoid that, I determined to build up my entire interpretation as a true study of tone.”

Sonata N° 1

Rachmaninov himself found it interminable. The work professes to be a synthesis between the romantic sonata, as composed by Schumann and Chopin and the programmed symphony, modelled on Liszt’s Faust Symphony. From Dresden, he wrote to his friend Morozov that its dimensions were linked to its guiding theme: “Through each movement in turn it is intended to bring forth three contrasting human types: Faust, Marguerite, Mephisto.” He even thought of adapting it into a symphony, but the purely pianistic style of the work resisted orchestration. Jacques Emmanuel Fousnaquer wrote that “this sonata is a body of sound in perpetual ebullition, an absurd and sulphurous poem”, from the middle of which arises the familiar theme of the Dies Irae. Rachmaninov was to use this often during this period in Dresden, where he composed the Second Symphony and the Isle of the Dead, inspired by the picture painted by Arnold Böcklin. The first movement invades the ear like an impromptu fantasy on motifs of fifths and the play of seconds. The second movement closes in on itself, as if Rachmaninov deliberately wanted to erase all thematic contrast in order to withdraw into himself through a closed world of sound. The melody of the theme is based on a play of seconds around a repetitive tonality in the manner of old Russian religious music. The virtuosity of the third movement overwhelms the hearer and destroys all relief. It underlines a slow passage, interwoven by an inexorable pulse-beat, based on a total mastery of polyphony.

Sonata N° 2

Composed in Rome, when he had postponed the orchestration of the Cloches to the following summer, Rachmaninov compared this sonata to Chopin’s second sonata “which lasts nineteen minutes during which it says everything…” It is a direct descendant of the first sonata: the same three-part edifice, the same counterpoint, the same ornamental profusion used to emphasise rhythm. Jacques Emmanuel Fousnaquer again writes: “A strange telluric vigour emanates from the first and third movements, which could well have been Prokofiev’s inspiration for the “war sonatas”. In 1931 Rachmaninov tried to give it a lighter dimension. In 1942 Horowitz made a third version, which was a synthesis of the first two. It is the 1931 version that has been restored for us by Lydia Jardon.

Richard Prieur

The Press covers it !

« Since the versions of the two sonatas by Weissenberg and Paik are no longer available, the best references for these two works on a single CD are two women performers. Idil Biret has done a good version of these works, although, unfortunately, the sound is a bit harsh. The recording by Lydia Jardon does not suffer from this flaw – anyone who has ever savoured her ample, timbred sonorities in concert will appreciate the fidelity of this recording. Some speak of fingers and effects in Rachmaninoff; Lydia Jardon responds with song and poetry, with a focus on timbre. Rachmaninoff was the first to admit that his Sonata no. 1 had its weak points, and this artist does not ask it to give more than it can, which is why she is able to make it so captivating. There is nothing forced or needlessly spectacular in her concept, just a simplicity that unleashes the Faustian essence of the text and immerses us in a wondrous poetic voyage, where the sense of freedom is never the result of easy abandon. Jardon’s polyphonic sense (just imagine the technique required for this degree of clarity!) imprints a relief and an incessant vibration over the discourse. And it leaves us hoping for a fabulous Sonata no. 2. As we said, gratuitous pyrotechnical demonstrations are not the issue here. The authority used by Lydia Jardon to attack the Allegro agitato is that of a performer who has decided to charm the work with magic, rather than setting it on fire. The fundamental nobility of this approach will satisfy fans of this repertory as much as it will lead detractors to revise their prejudices. The nobility of the middle movement (so many mediocre pianists offer this up as a palette of moonlight-on-the-Nile) speaks eloquently of an interpretation that revises our perceptions of the work. As much as the interpretations of the late Serge Florentino (APR, Diapason d’or), and that’s saying a lot. »

March 2003, Alain Cochard

« A period of six years (1907 – 1913) separates the two Piano Sonatas by Rachmaninoff (the Russian composer’s only contributions to this genre), and in just a few years, he managed to master the form and the ideas. While the composer considered the First Sonata “interminable,” he compared the next one to Chopin’s Second Sonata, “which lasts for nineteen minutes and says everything.” Breaking with the unity of the whole, and shedding fragmentary light onto the peripheral motifs results in disintegration of the musical piece. Blurring the interconnection between the motifs and the specific heft of each rhythm, leads to the opposite result, which is just as unfortunate. Lydia Jardon has succeeded in avoiding both of these traps, imposing her extraordinary mastery of fingering with a powerful performance that is precise and supple, conducting the musical line while integrating the density of the idea with its corollary of scope and dynamics, as well as the necessary preservation of coherency and sonorous balance, resulting in an accurate, unaffected expression in such places as the slow movements, for example. With music of this sort that is at a constant simmer, Lydia Jardon brings a totally different approach as she joins her illustrious colleagues Weissenberg (Deutsche Grammophon) or the irreplaceable Horowitz (RCA). »

March-April 2003, Olivier Erouart

« Already released in 2000, this record by pianist Lydia Jardon, devoted to the two Rachmaninov sonatas, now appears under the new AR RE-SE label, for whom Jardon henceforth records. Its publication at the time attracted attention (Le Monde de la musique nr 244) due to the soloist’s aptitude to place herself in an expressive optic built of commitment, force and flamboyancy. These qualities render justice to pages of a difficulty of execution reserved for the digital feats of Vladimir Horowitz or of Rachmaninov himself. In fact, the Russian composer restructured his Sonata nr 2 in B flat in 1942 on the advice of the illustrious performer, thus creating a synthesis between the complicated original 1913 work and that of the clearer, 1931 version chosen here by Lydia Jardon. In this page, as in Opus 28 with its paroxysmal outbursts, the pianist shows proof of her ability to crystallise the opposites. Not long ago, Marie-Catherine Girod illustrated in Sonata nr 2 (in its original version) the intensity of a playing submitted to the realities of the construction. Today, Jardon tackles these voluble pieces head on, retaining only the very core. She can be compared to the best performers: Horowitz, Fiorentino, Askhenazy, Ogdon, Wild, Kocsis (for Opus 36), Berezovsky (for Opus 28), Kun-Woo Paik or Weissenberg for the two sonatas. »

February 2003, Michel Le Naour

« A prizewinner of the Milósz Magin competition, Lydia Jardon has not chosen an easy option with this program, usually an exclusively masculine preserve. This is the age of equality and it is particularly pleasant to observe that the lyricism of these "symphonic" pages does not belong solely to the great names, be they Horowitz, Collard, Ashkenazy, Ogdon or Van Cliburn. What is more, Lydia Jardon has something to say to us. First of all, she has a feeling for the timing of a pause, far from easy with the immense First Sonata! She knows where the final progression of the musical phrase is leading and she gives it full resonance without a break in the chords. The piano is round and warm, although a Kawai was not an obvious choice, given the instrument's heaviness of touch but equally the richness of its base notes. In the First Sonata the pianist brings out its most diaphanous colours and her temperament allows her to carry the melody with superb naturalness (Lento). The Second Sonata with its distinct yet supple rhythm is perfectly controlled. Lydia Jardon takes the time to master the score and bring out fully the clarity of the harmonies. The purely heroic aspect is almost relegated to the background (Finale). One feels that the choice of the revised version is justified here because it corresponds to the balance of the interpretation. The additions of the 1913 version would have supplied nothing further to the understanding of a profoundly spiritual and sincere reading. »

Nb 20, march 2000, Maxim Lawrence

« Lydia Jardon here shows herself to be a pianist of profound musicality, sensitivity, enviable talent, and virtuoso technique. Her playing demonstrates several fascinating aspects of interpretation and pianism in these two fiendishly difficult sonatas: super-sensitive handling of tone, coloring, and dynamics, potent projection of mood, elastic tempos, refusal to overplay or bang on the instrument, pearly passagework, and most of all, a poetry, a rare ability to paint Rachmaninoff’s music with a kind of "brushwork" that, for want of a better description, seems reminiscent of the evocative paintings of Turner. All of this coalesces into a canvas that is expressive and captivating. The First Sonata, only seldom performed, requires repeated hearings, for it is a serious, densely textured work. Jardon’s playing of this rather grim, dark piece is ideal, bringing out its latent beauty with great effectiveness. Her approach to the more popular Second Sonata is similar (Rachmaninoff’s revised version of 1931). Although the beautiful playing is very satisfying, in this piece I slightly miss the incomparable temperament of Horowitz, the glowing expressivity of Friedrich Höricke (MDG), and the high-octane brilliance and elan of Scherbakov (Naxos) – all exceptional recordings. Jardon’s recording was made in 1999 in the Theatre de Poissy on a Kawai EX piano, and it deserves a high recommendation, especially because it offers both sonatas. I hope to hear more from this outstanding pianist. »

American Record Guide, Mulbury