Jeremy Filsell has been widely recorded (and widely praised) both as a tactful, imaginative accompanist and as an organist, but this is my first encounter with him as a solo pianist. In his slightly Proustian notes-where he lovingly evokes the 'unique dark blue leather cover' of the copy of preludes that he inherited from his grandfather—he talks both about the nostalgic pull of the earlier music and about his appreciation of the 'more Neoclassical sensibility' of Rachmaninoffs late works, an appreciation that leads him to choose the leaner revised edition of the Second Sonata rather than the original. I therefore expected performances that, as a group if not individually, highlighted this central rift in Rachmaninoffs aesthetic. In practice, though, he doesn't follow through; while the nostalgia is clearly evident, there's little trace of the neoclassicism. I don't want to fall back on generalizations about the connections between performers and their instruments, but as you listen, it's hard to resist the thought that these are the kinds of weighty and bass-centered performances you'd expect from a romantic organist: rich in texture, somber in tone, generally slowish in tempo.
In many ways, the readings are eloquently persuasive. He's certainly got the measure of Rachmaninoffs dark colors (try the sonata's glowering middle movement), and his handling of texture is often beguiling (Francis Pott's luxuriant transcription of Op 34/12 is an excellent example). Then, too, he's unfailingly alert to Rachmaninoffs large-scale emotional curves, holding the music together with a powerful grip through his control of phrasing and especially dynamics. Listen, for instance, to his handling of the overall rise and fall of op 32/10—a haunting performance or to the riveting build into the recapitulation of the sonata's first movement.
That said, these interpretations—big in gesture, but generally inward in spirit—may be too consistently heavy, too full of emphatic point-making, for some tastes. Op 23/5 is a case in point. Filsell reasonably alludes to Rachmaninoffs own recording to justify his slight alteration of the ending (although in fact the two are not quite textually identical). But in so doing, he not only defends his editorial practice, but also reminds us of how different the two pianists are in terms of interpretive practice. Certainly, compared to the composer's fleeter reading (lighter in touch, keener in rhythm and articulation, and quicker in pace), Filsell's seems marginally heavy-handed.
Still, this is well worth considering for those who like their Rachmaninoff on the hefty side. The excellent recording captures Filsell's tone well.