Review of “The Return” in MusicWeb International. An appealing disc...Besalyan is an artist who does justice to each of these works, and those unfamiliar Babajanian morsels are an appetising addition.

The title of this disc from the Armenian-born American pianist Raffi Besalyan comes from the painting ‘The Return’ by Arnold Böcklin, which inspired Rachmaninov’s B-Minor Prelude. That piece is included in the selection of seven Preludes he plays here, to which he adds four of the composer’s Études-Tableaux. Besalyan is an idiomatic Rachmaninov player, as the ubiquitous C sharp minor Prelude Op.3 No.2 makes clear at the start of the disc. The broad outer sections are sensitively phrased, and the fast central part is accurate although with a very slight rhythmic stutter at one point. The ensuing G minor, hardly less celebrated although a much stronger piece, is swift and properly rhythmic throughout. The lyricism of the E flat Op.23 No.6 brings out the poetic side to his playing, but without dragging. In the C minor he nails the stormy mood of the swirling figuration from the start through to an emphatic close.

The Op.32 group has many of the same qualities. The evanescent whimsy of the G major is exquisitely captured, with perhaps the most alluring playing on the disc. The great B minor, which the album’s title alludes to, opens hauntingly enough, and the central climax has nobility aplenty. The G sharp minor has good technical control in the service of its elusive character. The group of four Études-Tableaux has equally successful playing, not least in the big E flat minor that Sviatoslav Richter once said he did not play as it made him feel naked. There is plenty of naked emotion in Besalyan’s passionate account. The Corelli Variations are well characterised, and more important still, placed as building blocks in a cumulative structure. The twenty individual variations are quite short, between 30 and 80 seconds long, so a sense of continuity is essential to a successful account of Op.42. Here the music grows convincingly right through until the andante coda.

The disc is not an all Rachmaninov affair, for we also get four quite short pieces by Arno Babajanian, an Armenian composer and pianist during the Soviet era. Barbajanian lived and worked mainly in Moscow, and so this piano music looks back to his native Armenia in music that blends his native folk idiom with the Russian school. This invests it with great charm. The booklet note speaks of the first piece ‘Prelude’ as having a “line of inheritance from Chopin via Rachmaninov”, and while you can hear that, this music is a little lighter than that makes it sound. The touching ‘Elegy’ was composed in memory of Babajanian’s fellow Armenian composer, Aram Khachaturian. The final work ‘Vagharshapat Dance’ is an early composition and apparently “one of Babajanian’s most popular works”, which it is easy to believe. These are all beguilingly played, and make both a neat introduction for many of us to the composer’s music and an attractive end to the recital.

Overall this is an appealing disc. The Rachmaninov pieces have been widely recorded, especially recently, and collectors may already know several accounts from star pianists that perhaps eclipse the recordings here. But at the very least Besalyan is an artist who does justice to each of these works, and those unfamiliar Babajanian morsels are an appetising addition. The booklet is in English only, with more photos of the pianist than we probably need, and the notes give useful background when both the soloist and one of the featured composers might be unfamiliar. The Sono Luminus label has produced a number of issues like this one with the material on both a CD and a Blu-ray audio disc. The sound on both carriers is very good.