Representing a third disc with ATMA Classique, pianist Sheng Cai offers an all-Rachmaninoff essay of might and undeniable virtuosity. Cai’s natural affinity for the Romantic piano repertory brings a distinct brand of competent verve to this music.
The album includes oft-recorded “hits” from the Russian composer, such as the ever-celebrated Sonata No.2 in B-flat Minor, Op.36, and the crowd-pleaser, Moments Musicaux, Op.16 (a cycle that Rachmaninoff revised in 1940 along with a handful of other works). Cai approaches these well-worn pieces with expertise and appreciation for Rachmaninoff’s own performance practice. Such sensitivity is refreshing; it aids Cai as he carves his pathway through familiar musical woods. These interpretations tend towards a personalized, even intimate concept, considered and sincere. Pianistically speaking, the damper pedal should be used judiciously but Cai employs it all too sparingly here. While some might welcome such an absence of sound, this listener yearned for more resonance: yet more red-hot reverb to tug at the Russian heartstrings.
The less familiar half of this record is comprised of novel Rachmaninoff: an attractive transcription from the opera Aleko, (penned by Sheng Cai himself), and a curious polka by German composer Franz Behr. This piece was beloved by Rachmaninoff’s father, Vassili (“Wassily,” in German transliteration). In homage, Rachmaninoff made this arrangement in 1911, “to W.R.”
Cai’s knack for transcribing is notable here, demonstrating how compelled Rachmaninoff devotees truly are to synthesize such non-piano works for the public at large.