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Sergei Rachmaninov plays and conducts
Volume I
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Piano Concerto No.2 Op.18 in C minor*
Isle of the Dead Op.29
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini*
Sergei Rachmaninov (piano and conductor)
Philadelphia Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski *
Recorded 1929 and 1935
VISTA VERA VVCD 00021 [72.08]
Volume II
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Serenade arr LISZT
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Sarabande from Partita No.4 BWV 828
Partita No.3 for Violin BWV 1006 – Preludio, Gavotte, Gigue
Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)

Pastorale arr TAUSIG
Louis DAQUIN (1694-1772)

Le Coucou
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)

Aria and Variations (The Harmonious Blacksmith)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1759-1795)

Theme and Variations AND Rondo alla turca from Sonata K311
Christoph Willibald von GLUCK (1714-1787)

Melodie from Orfeo ed Euridice arr SGAMBATI
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Turkish March arr Anton RUBINSTEIN
32 Variations in C minor WoO80
Violin Sonata Op.30 No.3 in G major*
Sergei Rachmaninov (piano)
Fritz Kreisler (violin)*
Recorded 1919-42
VISTA VERA VVCD 00023 [63.25]
Volume III
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 – cadenza by Rachmaninov
Gnomenreigen – Concert Etude No.2
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Golliwog’s Cakewalk from Children’s Corner
Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925)

La Jongleuse
Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)

Minuet Op.14 No.1
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)

Minuet from L’Arlesienne Suite No.1
Camille SAINT- SAËNS (1835-1921)

The Swan arr SILOTI
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)

Elfin Dance from the Lyric Pieces Op.12
Violin Sonata No.3 Op.45 in C minor*
Sergei Rachmaninov (piano)
Fritz Kreisler (violin)*
Recorded 1919-42
VISTA VERA VVCD 00025 [63.51]
Volume IV
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Ballade No.3 Op 47 in A flat major
Scherzo No.3 Op.39 in C sharp minor
Nocturne No.9 No.3 in E flat major
Mazurka Op 68 No.2 in A minor
Nocturne No.15 No.2 in F sharp minor
Waltz Op.18 in E flat major
Waltz Op.34 No.3 in F major
Waltz Op.42 in A flat major
Mazurka Op.68 No.2 in A minor
Waltz Op. 64 No.1 in D flat major
Waltz Op.64 No. 2 in C sharp minor
Waltz Op.64 No. 3 in A flat minor
Waltz Op.70 No.1 in G flat major
Waltz Op. posth. In E minor
Waltz Op.69 No.2 in B minor
Sonata No.2 in B flat minor Op.35
Sergei Rachmaninov (piano)
Recorded 1919-35
VISTA VERA VVCD 00026 [73.19]
Volume V
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Piano Concerto No.3 Op.30 in D minor*
Symphony No.3 Op.44 in A minor
Sergei Rachmaninov (piano and conductor)
Philadelphia Orchestra
Eugene Ormandy*
Recorded 1939-40
VISTA VERA VVCD 00028 [71.06]
Volume VI
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Piano Concerto No.1 Op.1 in F sharp minor*
Piano Concerto No.4 Op.40 in G minor*
Vocalise Op.34 No.14 orchestrated RACHMANINOV #

Powder and Paint arr. RACHMANINOV+
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Troika from The Seasons - November
Humoresque Op.10 No.2 in G major
Waltz Op.40 No.8 in A flat major
Lullaby Op.16 No.1 arr. RACHMANINOV
Sergei Rachmaninov (piano)
N. Plevitskaya (mezzo-soprano)+
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy*
Philadelphia Orchestra/ Sergei Rachmaninov#
Recorded 1923-42
VISTA VERA VVCD 00036 [71.20]
Volume VII
Alexander BORODIN (1833-87)

Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)

Hopak from Sorochintsy Fair arr. RACHMANINOV
Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)

The Flight of the Bumble-bee arr. RACHMANINOV
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)

Prelude Op.11 No.8
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Preludes Op.3 No2, Op.23 No.5, Op.23 No.10, Op.32 No.3, Op.32 No.5, Op.32 No.6, Op.32 No.7, Op.32 No.12
Melodie Op.3 No.3
Polichinelle Op.3 No.4
Serenade Op.3 No.5
Humoresque Op.10 No.5
Oriental Sketch
Polka de V.R.
Barcarolle Op.10 No.3
Moment Musicaux Op.16 No.2
Daisies Op.38 No.3
Lilacs Op.21 No.5
Etude-tableaux Op.33 No.2, Op.33 No.7, Op.39 No.6
Sergei Rachmaninov (piano)
Recorded 1920-40
VISTA VERA VVCD 00037 [69.09]
Volume VIII
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Sonata for Violin and Piano D574*
Impromptu Op.90 No.4
Das Wandern arr. LISZT
Der Kontrabandiste arr. TAUSIG
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Spinning Song (Lieder ohne Worte Op.67)
Etude Op.104b Nos 2 and 3
Scherzo from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Gradus ad Parnassum (from Children’s Corner)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Carnaval Op.9
Sergei Rachmaninov (piano)
Fritz Kreisler (violin)*
Recorded 1921-42
VISTA VERA VVCD 00039 [66.12]

There are some discographic counter-factuals that really grip. How, for instance, would we have looked on the performance histories of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas if Rachmaninov, not Schnabel, had set down the first complete cycle for HMV in the 1930s. He was certainly asked and just as certainly turned down the idea; he wasn’t daunted by the prospect so much as disappointed by the fee. Schnabel was cheaper (and no great idolater of the Russian either). And how about the Elgar and Debussy recordings he could have made as a conductor; what would Rachmaninov’s take have been on, say, La Mer or the Enigma Variations?

Thankfully Rachmaninov on disc is not really a study in frustration. Since the RCA Red Seal 10 disc set is currently languishing, out of print, in the vaults we do not, at the moment, have a Complete Edition derived from source material. So Vista Vera are serving admirers well with this set which restores to circulation the majority of his discs (no acoustic Second Concerto for example and none of the Edisons) in transfers that – see below for more details – I think are at best serviceable but will do only as a stop-gap.

The leonine aristocracy of Rachmaninov’s playing, the perception that this is playing unfettered by limitation either digital or technical, is present throughout these discs. They reflect an aesthetic that is frequently personalised to a remarkable degree, most especially in Mozart and Schubert, but that can be channelled with remarkable imagination and flair when joined by a personality of equal stature – in this case Kreisler in their sonata recordings.

His Victor-RCA recordings were made over a twenty-three year period, from 1919 to1942. The clarity of his voicings in Bach was legendary, the absorption of the violinistic by the pianistic in the Partita BWV 1006 a marvel of creativity and suggestibility. Yet when he moved from elevated Bach to hyphenated Scarlatti-Tausig his capricious rhythm was equally captivating and his Harmonious Blacksmith, another plaything for Golden Age pianists, emerges as deliberate and clear and not at all hammered out, gathering strength as it goes, reaching that single apex of Rachmaninovian intensity. His Mozart (two movements from K311) is gloriously romantic, full of sly humour and utterly indefensible - with a Rondo alla turca that defines the word emphatic as well as any dictionary. The Gluck-Sgambati is beautifully done and without much pedal (as is the temptation) – though it doesn’t, for me, efface Egon Petri. And yet as if to confound the issue his 1925 Beethoven-Rubinstein Turkish March does use quite some pedal but manages effortlessly to highlights the saucy humour.

It’s impossible to pick highlights from amongst these eight discs but let’s try his Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 with Rachmaninov’s own cadenza. There’s some exceptional half pedal, perfectly audible in this 1919 acoustic, with swathes of colour and virtuosity, incredible glowering bass and a daredevil drama a-plenty. His Gnomenreigen grows inexorably to become all enveloping, his Kreisler transcription of Liebesfreud comes complete with thunderous rococo charm, bass extensions and an air of naughtiness and he teases Liebeslied similarly, not least the left hand line. He animates Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk with teasing rubati and fulsomeness and brings Scarlatti to bear on Paderewski’s Minuet. His Chopin is full of freedom, metrical and, it must be said, textual. Not everyone will respond wholeheartedly to his playing, but even those who shy away from Rachmaninov’s personality-rich playing will surely be captivated by something, by some detail or subtlety. The strata of tone colours and rubati of the Third Ballade, for instance. Or the lullaby-like E flat major Nocturne, with its unimpeachable trill, the tied bass notes and his control of piano. The F sharp major may have some idiosyncratic things amidst the magnificence of the decorative runs but, as so often with Rachmaninov, doubt is stilled; for all the personalisation, it makes sense. There’s hardly any pedal in the Waltz in E flat major – the mechanism is under perfect clarity and control at a relatively sedate tempo (and hear the piano "laugh" so suggestively). For Rachmaninov, truly, each note has its meaning. Throughout his Chopin recordings one feels Rachmaninov’s articulation and rhythm as indissoluble components of his true greatness in the repertoire. Indeed colouristically and textually he is fascinating – try the A minor Mazurka – even when he is at his most capricious and the locus classicus of that is his 1930 recording of the B flat minor Sonata. Here he extends the finale in a way not sanctioned – shall we say – by Chopin but the result is one of uplifting power, with Rachmaninov sculpting waves of impetus and not an undifferentiated mf all the way through. For all its recasting his performance of the sonata embraces all its moods, all its power and all its romance.

Schubert can be problematical with Rachmaninov. The Impromptu is very fluent, too much so, but his Schumann is often touched by the Gods, for all its idiosyncrasy. Der Kontrabandiste is dazzling and his Mendelssohn scintillates; the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream rivals Moiseiwitsch’s legendary performance. But the greatest focus of interest in the Schubert-Mendelssohn-Schumann axis that forms Volume 8 in this series is on Carnaval. For all that he may appear to exaggerate emotive states, to plunge headlong into the dance, to tease and taunt, Rachmaninov always remains humanly alive to Schumann’s inspiration. His Preamble is powerful but quick, with lashings of subtly inflected rubati, the accents in Pierrot tough. Eusabius pleads insinuatingly but with delicacy, Florestan is riven with leonine drama – the constant accelerandi and slowings down dizzying in their complexity if not always naturalness. Coquette here is no easy flirt; the rubati are positively aggressive and insistent and Rachmaninov includes Sphinxes – truly sinister and horribly prescient. Chopin is nobly aloof, the Valse allemande truly witty and the concluding Marche resplendently triumphant. For all that you may take against it, or resist it, or find it stretched beyond normal bounds this is a Carnaval for all recorded time.

All this of course, without mentioning Rachmaninov playing his own works though here I think much less is needed. The Concerto performances are still the fons et origo for pianists, which they must either internalise, absorb or reject. The performances demonstrate, by their compelling control and sense of architecture, just how to release those moments of romantic effulgence that most pianists spend their lives sentimentalising. It was a musical gift his poker faced compatriot and colleague Moiseiwitsch absorbed and that Rachmaninov so admired in him. Stokowski is an adept marshal in the Second – that glorious Philadelphia string cantilever in the first movement, the wind counterpoint in the slow movement. Then there are those lessons in weight and rhythmic control in the finale – the naturalness of propulsion that was so inherent a part of his musical mechanism. Then there’s the sheer savoir-faire of the Paganini Variations, the lissom drama and nobility enshrined within. The First Concerto similarly has the most acute sense of direction, drama and lyricism held in perfect balance whilst the famous Fourth’s tempestuous drive is nevertheless accompanied by the unravelling of the beautiful wind writing (in Rachmaninov’s performances time becomes elastic). The Third has a bright, steady and not at all introverted opening – nothing self-conscious or specious at all. The peaks of phrases sound unarguably right as we listen and the clarity of passagework in the slow movement is Olympian and flawless. Especially valuable in this respect is Volume 7 in which, apart from the single and superb playing of Scriabin’s Prelude Op.11 No.8 we hear essentially all-Rachmaninov and some of the Preludes and Etude- tableaux in particular. The rapt and starkly romantic Melodie Op.3 No.3 is an object lesson in narrative tension (he plays the revision) – a quite wonderful performance by the way full of myriad subtleties – and the famous Polka de V.R. shows how nudge-nudge playing, beloved of some, is no substitute for the finesse, control and a kind of aristocratic aloofness that the composer displays here. Throughout these recordings voicings, colour, depth of lyricism and digital command are all harnessed to optimum effect. Declamatory and leonine power flow throughout the Prelude Op.32 No.3 but really it’s invidious to single out any particular performance.

The authorial voice we hear conducting the Isle of the Dead is intensely purposely but dramatic, powerful and tense. This famous recording and that of the Third Symphony show what we have missed through the restrictions on his conducting for RCA Victor. But enough remains to make a study of this body of work both necessary and important – both for students of Rachmaninov and for admirers of the repertoire and great pianism. As I said the transfers leave something to be desired. Too much top has been excised leaving a rather bland uniformity of sound. In an attempt to mitigate the sound limitations of the late acoustics in particular Vista Vera has removed shellac hiss at the expense of treble frequencies, The Concerto recordings, too, lack the brightness and immediacy we now expect from these discs (see Naxos). I can’t necessarily recommend these discs then on those grounds – we must wait for a recommendably transferred set from authoritative source material - but a pianophile without Rachmaninov’s recordings should not really sleep at night.

Jonathan Woolf

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