I was so taken with various sound clips of Zlata Chochieva that I bought the CD of this recording from a European source. I didn't think that I could go wrong, since it consists of two of my favorite pieces by Rachmaninov, the Chopin Variations and the Piano Sonata No. 1. Not only was I not wrong, I'm elated.
The 1st Piano Sonata has proven a problematic piece; Rachmaninov said that it was too hard for anyone ever to play it, and the Sonata No. 2 has been much more popular. Moreover, Rachmaninov originally based the piece on Faust; he suppressed that program, later admitting that the music would have been more comprehensible if he had not done so. To this listener, the dramatic presence of Faust in the first movement, Gretchen in the 2nd, and Mephistopheles in the third is unavoidable. The first is turbulent and, at times despairing, with a tantalizing hint of the Gretchen theme near the end; the second is a portrait of Gretchen, one of those long, glorious Rachmaninov songs, too beautiful for words; and the third is, well, diabolical, fiendish both in its technical demands and its portrayal of Mephistopheles.
Few have attempted this work on record, and I've heard most of them, since this piece has mesmerized me since I first heard an old RCA LP with John Ogdon. Ogdon's performance remains hugely impressive, though the cramped and hollow RCA sound of the era is pretty awful. (The recording on EMI CD, when the pianist was so ill, is a painful shadow of Ogdon's former glory on RCA. Howard Shelley made a very creditable run at it in his complete Rachmaninov recordings for Hyperion, and Idil Biret's Naxos recording has considerable merit. The much under-appreciated Robert Silverman's and Alexis Weissenberg's recordings are very fine. The recording by Yakov Kasman, mannered and self-promoting in the extreme, should be avoided.
Until hearing this recording by Chochieva, I'd have been happy with Ogdon (when I can bear the sound), Silverman, and Weissenberg--plus one I haven't mentioned, that by the Tchaikovsky Prize Gold Prize winner and super-virtuoso Boris Berezovsky quite lyrical in the first movement when the music calls, I think, for heaven-storming, hair-raising emotion. (Nikolai Lugansky's recording of the Sonata is highly touted, but I haven't heard the CD, only a live performance which can be found on the Internet. It is very elastic and far less powerful than Chochieva's. Lugansky's sound, every time I've heard it, is cushioned, and he favors a legato approach. These attributes bear wonderful fruit in Mozart but not in this Sonata.
Chochieva's approach is definitely of the Ogdon turn of mind. The conception is sweeping and powerfully complex, and the technical demands, as with Ogdon, are nothing to her. By comparison, the other pianists I've heard in this work lack that last measure of technical bravura and elan. And, of course, it's not only a matter of technique but also of temperament. Chochieva has it all. The music breathes naturally, overwhelms and sings when it should, and brims with passion, and Chochieva masters the disparate moods of the piece. Of her, Stephen Kovacevich has said he would be "interested to hear anything she does ... and that is rare". So would I, and it is. The piano sound in the recording is very life-like: one hears the complex vibration of the strings, and Chochieva's sound is full of color; she really does have a huge sonority.
I've spent so much of this review on the Sonata , which I've felt emotionally close to it for many years. But I love the Chopin Variations, too, even more than the more popular Corelli Variations. Interestingly, the recital which premiered the Sonata No. 1 also featured these Variations. Chochieva's brilliant performance stands with Berezovsky's and Scherbakov's as my favorites. She has subtlety and brilliance; and again, the sound of the recording is very impressive. This recording of the Chopin Variations is somewhat rare, in that it contains the optional Variations VII, IX, and XII, plus the coda.
Highly and warmly recommended. Amazon should make the CD of this recording available, not just the download which is now available. And Piano Classics should give this wonderful artist as many opportunities to record as she likes. But buy any version of it you can if you love, or are curious about, this music.