Alexander Kniazev and Nikolai Lugansky, both Moscow Conservatoire-trained, really grab these works by the jugular. This is music in the raw: red-blooded stuff, with no inhibitions.
Rachmaninoff’s Sonata is the better suited of the two to this type of full-on approach. The impassioned first movement is followed by an Allegro scherzando that is positively brutal, with some interesting, hard pizzicato timbres on the lower strings. The passion and yearning of the Andante are undeniably real and Lugansky’s poetic romanticism transports the listener several times to the Second Piano Concerto, written in the same year.
The Chopin might have benefited from more finesse – the Scherzo, for instance, is taken at a frenetic pace, with both instruments’ accented crotchets particularly percussive. This is certainly not a careful performance, but one which is carried along by storm; at best, as in the Scherzo’s trio and the energetic double-stops of the finale, this can be inspiring; at worst it results in rushed execution of faster figurations.
It’s rare that you could describe Kniazev’s cello tone as beautiful or rounded – often it’s quite harsh, especially on the A string, with a notably daring open A just before the return of the first theme in the first movement of the Chopin Sonata. He’s capable of a real pianissimo, his bow almost hovering over the string – a technique that can be extremely moving, but can also result in a wavering tone.
The recorded sound leaves nothing to the imagination, but I found Kniazev’s constant, hissing drawing-in of breath through the teeth before phrases very distracting.