Daily Telegraph, March 2006

Fanfare, November / December 2006

RACHMANINOFF Piano Sonata No. 1, op. 28. Morceaux de salon, op. 10
Martin Cousin (pn)
SOMM CD 048 (73:16)

As I typed the above headnote, it occurred to me that this was the sort of review that begs to be skipped: obscure repertoire, played by a virtually unknown pianist, on a tiny independent label. Well, keep reading!

Until now, I had been familiar with SOMM only as the keeper of the Beecham Collection flame; my review of their latest released in this series appeared last issue. The present CD is part of what SOMM calls its "New Horizons" series. To quote the booklet: "The aim of SOMM's 'New Horizons' series is to provide young musicians of great talent with the opportunity of promoting their careers worldwide in top quality recordings. The artists in the 'New Horizons' series are chosen from the cream of interpreters of the new generation on their way to international recognition." Judging by this disc, they have just such a talent on their hands in Martin Cousin.

Many collectors are familiar with Rachmaninoff's Second Sonata, but the First has been primarily the province of connoisseurs and completists. This, I think, can be explained fairly straightforwardly: the Second, particularly in its 1931 revision or one of the "hybrid" versions by Horowitz and others, is both more compact and more flashy than the First, a "bring-down-the-house" showpiece that takes a little more than 20 minutes to play. The First Sonata, written in 1907, is a colossus in three movements lasting just under 40 minutes in this performance, thus, it shares the large-scale musical thinking of the other works Rachmaninoff was writing around the same time - the Second Symphony, The Isle of The Dead, and the Third Concerto. It is also an utter masterpiece, far superior musically to the Second. This is dead-serious music that refuses to make the typical virtuoso-type concessions to the audience, while at the same time being fantastically difficult for the pianist. The difficulties are as much musical as they are technical. A case in point is the ethereal pianissimo episode in the finale that recalls the second movement, a passage as far from the fast-and-loud sort of difficulty as one could imagine, and yet one in which every pianist I have heard on records - until now - has come to grief. Here the pianist must produce a legato upper line, a rocking bass of which every other note (slurred!) requires a hand-crossing by the same right hand that plays the legato melody, plus a sextuplet left-hand figuration that calls for the notes on the second and fourth quarters of each measure to be played as a separate "voice" oscillating between two adjacent notes. The pianist is thus required to project four distinct "parts," differentiating them by means of touch, dynamics, and pedalling. This sort of challenge typifies the piano-writing throughout the Sonata; on virtually every page Rachmaninoff's notation is incredibly complex and subtle, with double stems and lines between the staves indicating inner-voice continuities that in less-than-masterful performances could easily be swallowed up in the busyness of the figuration.

Among earlier pianists to attempt the tame this monster, Ruth Laredo (Sony) lacked the necessary sense of breadth and contrasts in color; her middle voices are too often just a blur, and she is simply overmatched by the finale. Santiago Rodriguez (Elan) is defeated by his own tempos in the outer movements, eventually reduced to simple banging. Howard Shelley (Hyperion) holds his own for two movements, but like Rodriguez is too fast in the finale, losing important motives and inner lines in the service of managing to play all the notes. Even in such distinguished company, Cousin, a thirtyish Scotsman, stands alone. His is the broadest of these readings, each of his outer movements lasting about a minute longer than Shelley's, but this is no cop-out; the tempo relationships throughout make perfect sense. And he has not only the power to play the massive, orchestrally scaled climaxes, but also the ability to play a beautiful pianissimo, plus the uncanny control - and the musical comprehension - to bring out the ubiquitous inner lines that Rachmaninoff calls for. This is the performance of the First Sonata that I have always heard in my head, but never thought I'd actually get to hear with my ears. This guy's the Real Deal.

After this, what to say about the seven pieces that form Rachmaninoff's op. 10? They are products of his early maturity, written in 1893-94 (he was all of 20, remember), and for the most part fairly slight of substance; this makes the CD a bit unbalanced, and not optimally heard in a single sitting. The closest competition here is from Ian Hobson (Arabesque) and again I consistently find Cousin more satisfying; The Valse (no.2), in which Hobson is rhythmically clearer, is the lone exception. The two strongest pieces in the set are the haunting Barcarolle (No.3), for which Cousin makes an excellent case, and the Humoresque (No.5), which is appropriately flamboyant. The latter was one of four early pieces that Rachmaninoff revised in 1940 for a series of recording sessions: Cousin sets an example for other pianists by including both versions. The juxtaposition is fascinating: the 1940 version maintains the form and melody of the original throughout, but radically reharmonizes much of the piece in Rachmaninoff's more pungent, dissonant late style. A tiny quibble: it might have been better to put this track at the end, as a sort of appendix, to make it more convenient to listen to the entire set in its original form; but I suppose that's why CD players are programmable.

One interesting footnote: while most Americans, at least, have not heard of Cousin before, many have send his hands doubling for the scenes featuring Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto in the movie Shine.

Christopher Morley's notes cover the important bases: the booklet also gives the address of Cousin's Web site (www.martincousin.com).

The piano (I don't see a manufacturer mentioned) is recorded beautifully. What more can I say? Keep an eye on this pianist. And buy this disc!

Richard A. Kaplan

International Piano, May / June 2006

Rachmaninoff: Piano Sonata no. 1 in D minor, op 28; Morceaux de salon, op 10; revised version of Humoresque, op 10 no 5.
Martin Cousin, piano.
Somm New Horizons SOMMCD 048 (73 mins, DDD)

Here is the first recording from Scottish pianist Martin Cousin, now in his early thirties and winner of the Royal Overseas League competition (sponsors of this disc). An all-Rachmaninoff programme comes as no surprise given Cousin’s frequent advocacy of his music, but the inclusion of the First Sonata is a particularly bold move given both its relative obscurity and extreme difficulty.

The Sonata is imperial-period Rachmaninoff at his height; full of complex mysteries and elaborate figurations. The three-movement structure is demanding on both performer and listener, consisting of portraits of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles.

Cousin gives a reading that is interpretatively thought-provoking throughout, particularly in the first movement, where he makes some striking connections. I noted in particular the way in which the introduction leads into the main section organically rather than with the separation often present, and some interesting choices of tempo. Generally he goes for a broad flow of argument, with a full sound in the chords and a good sense of melodic line, prompting comparison with Howard Shelley’s approach. The finale benefits from this rather less than the first movement, sounding rather deliberate by comparison with Santiago Rodriguez’s effortless virtuosity. Rodriguez also dramatises the music more, with a huge variety of tone colour and a powerhouse of a technique at his disposal, so that one scents the sulphur and flames that Cousin does not quite evoke.

The Morceaux de salon are Rachmaninoff at his lightest; a collection of seven varied miniatures that owe much to Chopin and Tchaikovsky. The Barcarolle and Humoresque from the set are familiar from legendary Horowitz live readings from 1979, but the other pieces are less well-known. The simplicity of the style here responds well to Cousin’s direct, honest approach; he plays with sympathy and persuasive advocacy for music that is not always the composer’s strongest.

A promising début, and a pianist well worth discovering.

John Kersey

Musicweb, May 2006

Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor Op.28 (1907) [39.27]
Morceaux de Salon Op.10 (1893-94) [33.41]
Martin Cousin (piano)
rec. The Banff Centre, October 2004
SOMM CD048 [73.16]

Executed with considerable control and command of the idiom this is a more than useful debut disc by British pianist Martin Cousin. The choice to take on the D minor sonata was canny, in that it tends to be less well regarded than it might be and less widely performed as well. And it tends to be a work of which the difficulties involved in its taming are held in direct ratio to its impact in performance. With a well considered view of its difficulties and a powerful technique to put those ideas into practice the sonata can sound as it does here, powerfully argued, full of rhetoric, it's true, but also thoroughly imaginative.

Cousin takes a lean and hungry view. His playing has a fine sense of the work's linearity and he is loath to sacrifice its structure to incidental felicities. His chordal playing springs out of the speakers, crisp, even, powerful without ever forcing tone. Then in the first movement he also captures a withdrawn bronzed tone that is equally admirable. His left hand is no mere accomplice too - he actively brings out shading throughout. In the slow movement I was reminded more than once of the Vocalise - as Cousin's evocative playing brings out lines and motifs with discretion and imagination. The finale has plenty of power and confidence; it's not a daredevil take on it, but there's still a commanding control and not least a sensitive exploration of those little moments of lyric reprieve. I liked the way Cousin varied the tone colours in his chordal playing. It's not the only way to approach the sonata but on its own terms it's an especially successful one.

The Op.10 Morceaux de Salon offer more microscopic pleasures than are on offer in the big sonata. Some will remember the Barcarolle and Humoresque from Horowitz's recordings though equally others will remember the composer's own recordings of these two pieces. We find that throughout Cousin strikes a good balance between aristocratic finesse and avuncular interjection. His Nocturne is nicely nuanced and whilst he lacks Rachmaninov's caprice and devilish rubati in the Barcarolle, he remains commendably straight without ever becoming dull. Similarly Cousin's Humoresque is soft-grained and pliable, good natured and drenched in sangfroid. By contrast the composer has a whiff of the sulphurous about him, with an acerbic tone and a fistful of grotesquerie. Composer-performers do tend to be sui generis.

The recording is a touch dry and that prevents a full blossoming of sound. But it doesn't limit one's admiration for much of this recital.

Jonathan Woolf

International Record Review, April 2006

Rachmaninov New Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 28.; Morceaux de Salon, Op. 10.

Martin Cousin (piano).
Somm SOMMCDO48 (full price, 1hour 13 minutes)
Producer Brian Richards
Engineer Natasha Fabijanic.
Dates October 24th-26th, 2004.

Martin Cousin is not quite a household name just yet - it would seem his hands received considerable exposure some years ago in the film Shine, although unfortunately the cover here shows him only as far down as his breast-pocket handkerchief. Rachmaninov's First Sonata turns out to he an excellent choice for him - there is still plenty of room for an up-and-coming soloist to make a mark in this relatively neglected work and his technique is both dependable and fearless.

Rather than burden his First Sonata with a programme from the beginning, Rachmaninov waited until it had been launched before revealing its inspiration in the Faust legend: as with Liszt's Faust Symphony, its three movements depict the three central characters. He referred to the sonata as being 'absolutely wild and interminably long'. The first it certainly is from time to time (especially in the Mephistophelean third movement - although even Gretchen has her moments), the second it very much isn't - at least not in this excellently judged performance, which makes its nearly half-hour duration sound positively compact.

Cousin's style is no-nonsense and his playing full toned and forceful. Even at the first movement's climax (around 11'30") there is no hint of things becoming wayward. His chordal playing is impressively strong. The atmosphere of this recording (made at the Banff Centre in Canada) is very decidedly studio rather than concert-hall and the close perspective does reduce Cousin's scope for nuance. Even so, his smaller-scale contrasts could perhaps have had more shaping - but the large-scale direction is most impressive and there are plenty of orgiastic moments to enjoy.

The second movement would certainly have blossomed more attractively in a more welcoming acoustic. Here the melody sometimes disappears behind the accompaniment and the ascent towards the top of the keyboard (4'51") sounds alarmingly dry. Mephistopheles's dotted rhythms receive a genuinely biting attack - 1'39" in the third movement sounds, appropriately enough, extremely nasty. There is lots of verve and momentum; the finale is certainly the most successful thing here and its final moments are marvellous.

The Morceaux de Salon are perhaps not quite as successful. While Cousin's disciplined approach works well in the Sonata, here a little more poetry might have been welcome. Probably not too many would spot the Nocturne as a nocturne from sound alone - one does wonder how much lies with the recorded approach and how much with Cousin himself. It would also have been better to include one of the versions of the Humoresque as an appendix rather than in the body of the cycle - as it is, pre-programming is necessary to hear the cycle in its proper form. But this is a welcome release, from a pianist worth following.

Carl Rosman