This is pianist Emre Yavuz’s debut recording. Clearly undaunted at the prospect of playing some of the hardest but most recorded piano repertoire, I have to say I enjoyed his disc a great deal and I found the whole disc to be a riveting and compelling listening experience. Yavuz is a thirty year-old Turkish born musician who studied and now lives in Vienna. Evidently, he has invested not only a great deal of time and energy into the preparation of this disc but emotion and ‘spirit’ too. In his liner note [in German and English only] – which is as interesting and thought provoking as his playing – Yavuz explains how he closely and personally identifies with this particular music to the point that he was concerned about playing it in public as it felt him feeling emotionally exposed and vulnerable. I listened to the disc before reading the liner and one of the features of these performances was how individual they are. Now of course that individuality can alienate as many listeners as it will engage but I find myself wholly swept up by Yavuz’s vision and indeed passion.
In this he is hugely helped by a sovereign technique, a superb Bösendorfer 280VC Vienna Concert Grand piano and a really excellent 24 bit recording. The disc opens with the longer 1913 original version of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No 2 in B-flat minor. I say original version, but Yavuz chooses – Steven Osbourne, Sudbin and Lugansky as well follow the lead of Horowitz – to create his own hybrid version of the extended original with elements of the 1931 revision. Ultimately, I am not worried about the minutiae of editorial choices Yavuz or indeed any other pianist makes, it is the importance of the ‘moment’ of performance that compels. There are so many very fine versions of this work – in either edition – that trying to place a new disc somewhere in that pantheon is both pointless and fruitless. As I said, Yavuz has a clear and very personal vision of this work. Part of this can be intimated from the duration of his performance. Roughly speaking, most revised-version performances clock in around the twenty minute mark with the excised 113 bars of the original taking the work up to the mid twenties. Yavuz’s interpretation lasts just over thirty minutes. I did do a double take on that figure because by ear alone there is no sense of sloth in this performance. Indeed, the overtly virtuosic and dynamic passages – of which there are many – are played with great brilliance and articulacy as well as sonorous power – these are passages where the Bösendorfer is caught in magnificent sound. On reflection and relistening, it becomes clear that Yavuz is willing to push the expressive boundaries of this work to its limits – indeed it might be termed a hyper-Romantic interpretation. In this he chooses an occasionally risky expressive path. There are passages in the central Non Allegro which teeter on the edge of becoming becalmed in a languorously rapturous haze while other passages in the outer movements are dispatched with imperious if not wild abandon.
For some listeners this might simply serve to prove that Rachmaninoff was a composer out of touch with the Modernist aesthetic of his day. But clearly Yavuz does not seek to make any apologies or concessions on behalf of the composer. This is the kind of music-making I enjoy – it challenges my expectations and pre-conceptions and throws new and often revelatory light on familiar music. This is in no way “safe” playing – not for a second that any technical aspect is anything but utterly secure but you can hear that Yavuz is willing to explore just how far he can push the expressive boundaries within the music. That, allied to his own deep identification with these works, is why he writes of feeling emotionally exposed when playing this music. Now I can imagine that some listeners would not feel comfortable or convinced by this confessional approach, but on a purely personal level I was swept away. The last time I reviewed this work was in 2014 when the excellent Xiayin Wang recorded it for Chandos. Wang is another remarkable player for whom technical challenges seem few if to exist at all. But having enjoyed her other discs, those performances of the Rachmaninoff Sonatas left me strangely unmoved – phenomenally played for sure but oddly impersonal. The very antithesis of this new recording in fact although Yavuz gives nothing in technique to Wang – and that is saying something. As with any great piece of music there are multiple approaches that can give the listener fresh insights and emotional responses. In his liner Yavuz explains that he sees the work as a journey from turbulent darkness via tender reflection to a triumphal light. This is a familiar narrative arc but one that Yavuz presents with total and compelling conviction. It might not be the only way but while experiencing his vision it is hard not to be swept along on the journey.
This sense of a journey proves equally applicable – perhaps slightly surprisingly – to the ten Preludes Op 23 that complete the disc. Again, these are extremely familiar and often-recorded works. But what impressed me with Yavuz is the way he finds a unifying thread across the ten seemingly independent pieces. He explains his approach persuasively in the liner with the Prelude No 1 acting as a ‘prologue’ to a story that runs from the second prelude through to the sombre conclusion of number 10. Along the way there are some very famous individual pieces – the Alla Marcia – Prelude No 5 in G minor features in many a live or recorded recital. In isolation Yavuz gives this a scintillating performance – I love the tight articulation and crisp rhythmic precision of his playing. Here he is the equal of any of the illustrious pianists to have performed this work – and better than many others to boot. Other characteristics of his playing carry over from the Sonata – in the slower reflective passages or Preludes he is willing to linger in a way that risks stagnation instead of stasis, but to my ear he just manages to keep the life pulse of the music moving. This is most evident in the 10th and final prelude – a Largo in G-flat major. Most performances clock around the 3:30 mark – although Peter Katin’s famous set of the complete preludes takes just over 4:00 as does Howard Shelley in his acclaimed complete piano works on Hyperion. Yavuz is a full minute longer than either which is a very significant difference in a work of this duration. Again, I must allow that for some listeners this will simply be a case of stretching the musical material too thin – but I was captivated. And certainly – and importantly – if one does accept Yavuz’s “single work” approach to this set of Preludes, this remarkably poised and sombre leave-taking provides a powerful and moving conclusion to both the individual work and the disc as a whole.
Credit once again must go to the equally excellent TYXart engineers and Bösendorfer piano technicians who have given Yavuz the environment in which he can express his very personal musical vision. Having recorded this disc in December 2019, I can imagine the frustration of the global pandemic in effect preventing artist and record company promoting this disc as soon or in the manner they might have wished. From my perspective, this has been worth the wait with this disc one of the most enjoyable and indeed challenging discs of Rachmaninoff’s piano music that I have heard in a long time.