Études-tableaux, Opp.33 & 39
Martin Cousin (piano)
Recorded 28 & 29 October 2012 at the Old Granary Studio, Suffolk, England
Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker
Reviewed: July 2014
CD No: SOMM
Duration: 64 minutes
This release contains performances of a very high technical and interpretative accomplishment. Rachmaninov’s two sets of Études-tableaux stand at the very end of the period of Romantic composer-pianists from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-centuries. Indeed, it might justly be claimed that they bring down the curtain on that era – certainly in terms of major contributions to it, with just the composer’s Corelli Variations and rather less-significant pieces by Medtner to come, overlapping music by Russian pianist-composers of later generations.
Today, a comprehensive virtuoso technique is demanded of all pianists, which is one reason why the record catalogues are not bereft of issues of this music, but having long since disproved the once-current nonsensical (and downright unmusical) assessments of Rachmaninov – as exemplified by the 1953 Fifth Edition of Grove’s Dictionary – we now know that the artistic quality of his music is substantially greater than was ever admitted more than half a century ago – and that, in his piano music especially, more than the ability to play the notes is needed.
What is required on the part of pianists who would attempt this music is a technique that can surmount the fearsome difficulties of the writing, allied to a grasp of from whence this music emanates and an understanding of the inherent individual expressive qualities of a great composer.
The music has not changed since it was written one hundred years ago, but our understanding of it has, aided by recordings of which there have been several fine issues over the years – by some of the most admired pianists before the public – but on balance none, I would claim, are superior to Martin Cousin’s in terms of re-creative insight.
The technical challenges of these pieces hold no fears for him: Cousin is their complete master in terms of tackling the most demanding of passages. But more importantly, and over and against this necessary quality, his understanding and grasp of the myriad musical qualities of these pieces is total. As just one example, Cousin’s realisation of the composer’s varying dynamics – he knows, full well, the difference between ff and fff, and the expressive importance of such markings. These two sets of pieces can be viewed in various lights – as individual pieces or as consecutive movements within two collections, in which case rather deeper and subtler connections become manifest.
It is in such matters that the genuine musician reveals himself, although this remains but one aspect. Equally, in terms of phrasing and chording and of genuine tempo rubato playing, Cousin proves himself the complete Rachmaninov interpreter. Occasionally, I might question certain details of his approach, but it is his ability to reveal the inner expression of each etude, allied to his occasional thrilling spontaneity, which had me entranced and wanting more.
Overall, this is pianism of the best kind, with Cousin showing no tendency to sentimentalise the music. His playing throughout is suffused with genuine warmth and perception, at the same time as being wonderfully clean and precise in detail. The recording quality is splendid, and this is one of the best solo piano records I have heard for a very long time – the more so considering it faces some pretty severe competition in the catalogues. Those who do not know these extraordinarily original masterpieces are strongly advised to acquire this disc. There is none better.