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HISTORICAL ISSUE OF THE MONTH

 

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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

His Complete Recordings


BMG-RCA RED SEAL 82876-67892-2
[10 CDs: 67:49 + 62:45 + 62:30 + 65:03 + 66:00 + 58:14 + 58:54 + 71:52 + 65:39]


CD 1 [65:39]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Piano Concerto no.2 in C minor, op.18 [31:25], Piano Concerto no.3 in D minor, op.30 [33:57]
Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (no.2), Eugene Ormandy (no.3)

CD 2 [71:52]
RACHMANINOV

Piano Concerto no.1 in F sharp minor, op.1 [24:39], Piano Concerto no.4 in G minor, op.40 [24:33], Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, op.43 [22:08]
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy (Concertos 1 and 4), Leopold Stokowski (Rhapsody)

CD 3 [58:54]
RACHMANINOV

The Isle of the Dead, op.29 [18:05], Vocalise, op.34/14 [03:49], Symphony no.3, op.44 [36:41]
Philadelphia Orchestra/Sergei Rachmaninov

CD 4 [58:14]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Violin Sonata in G, op.30/3 [15:14]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Violin Sonata in A, D.574 [19:33]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)

Violin Sonata in C minor, op.45 [22:59]
Fritz Kreisler (violin)

CD 5 [66:00]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Partita no.4, BWV 828: Sarabande [04:18]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)

Suite no.5 in E: Air and Variations [04:14]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Sonata in A, K.331: Rondo alla turca [02:12]
BEETHOVEN

Variations in C minor, WoO 80 [07:52]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849) trans. Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Heimkehr [01:24], Mädchens Wunsch [02:39]
SCHUBERT trans. LISZT
Die schöne Müllerin: Das Wandern [01:38], Schwanengesang: Ständchen [04:22]
LISZT

Polonaise no.2 in E [07:36]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Lied ohne Worte in C, op.67/4 [01:40]
SCHUBERT

Impromptu in A flat, D.899/4 [04:28]
LISZT

Concert Etude no.2 – "Gnomenreigen" [03:03]
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1798) trans. Giovanni SGAMBATI (1841-1914)
Orfeo ed Euridice: Mélodie [03:26]
MENDELSSOHN

Etude in F, op.104b/2 [02:49], Etude in A minor, op.104b/3 [01:45]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) trans. Karl TAUSIG (1841-1871)
Spanisches Liederspiel: Der Kontrabandiste [01:48]
Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)

Minuet in G, op.14/1 [03:49]
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962) trans. RACHMANINOV
Liebesfreud [04:59]
CD 6 [65:03]
CHOPIN

Sonata no.2 in B flat minor, op.35 – "Funeral March" [18:43]
SCHUMANN

Carnaval, op. 9 [22:01]
CHOPIN

Nocturne in E flat, op.9/2 [04:42], Waltz in C sharp minor, op.64/2 [03:34], Waltz in A flat, op.64/3 [02:45], Ballade no.3 in A flat, op.47 [07:18], Mazurka in A minor, op.68/2 [02:43], Waltz in E minor, op. posth [01:44]
CD 7 [62:30]
J.S. BACH trans. RACHMANINOV
Partita no.3, BWV 1006: Preludio [03:13], Gavotte – Rondo [02:50], Gigue [01:02]
MENDELSSOHN trans. RACHMANINOV
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Scherzo [03:58]
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962) trans. RACHMANINOV
Liebesfreud [06:59]
SCHUBERT trans. RACHMANINOV
Die schöne Müllerin: Wohin? [02:19]
RACHMANINOV

Polka de V.R. [03:47], Etude-tableau in A minor, op.39/6 [02:30], Prelude in C sharp minor, op. 3/2 [03:36]
Modest MUSSORGSKY trans. RACHMANINOV
The Fair at Sorochinsk: Hopak [01:46]
Piotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) trans. RACHMANINOV
Lullaby, op.16/1 [04:00]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908) trans. RACHMANINOV
Tsar Saltan: The Flight of the Bumblebee [01:10]
BEETHOVEN trans. RACHMANINOV
The Ruins of Athens: Turkish March [03:01]
ALEXANDER BORODIN (1833-1887)

Scherzo in A flat [02:57]
TCHAIKOVSKY

Troika, op.37b/11 [03:54]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)

Prelude in F sharp minor, op.11/8 [02:34]
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899) trans. TAUSIG
Man lebt nur einmal [06:57]
Traditional trans. RACHMANINOV
Powder and Paint [03:45]
Nadejda Plevitskaya (mezzo-soprano)

RACHMANINOV

Polka italienne (4 hands)
Natalie Rachmaninov (piano)

CD 8 [63:17]
RACHMANINOV

Piano Concerto no.2 in C minor, op.18 [30:16]
Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski

Prelude in G flat, op.23/10 [03:11], Prelude in E, op.32/3 [02:16], Prelude in F, op.32/7 [02:09], Prelude in F minor, op.32/6 [01:16], Etude-tableau in C, op.33/2 [02:11], Etude-tableau in E flat, op.33/7 [01:41], Daisies, op.38/3 [02:06], Oriental Sketch [01:44], Mélodie in E, op.3/3 [03:42], Serenade in B flat minor, op.3/5 [02:49], Humoresque in G, op.10/5 [03:24], Lilacs, op.21/5 [03:24], Moment Musical in E flat minor, op.16/2
CD 9 [62:45]
CHOPIN

Mazurka in C sharp minor, op.63/3 [02:01], Nocturne in F sharp, op.15/2 [03:39], Walt in E flat, op.18 [04:30], Waltz in F, op.34/3 [02:44], Waltz in D flat, op.64/1 [01:56], Waltz in B minor, op.69/2 [03:00], Waltz in G flat, op.70/1 [01:50], Scherzo no.3 in C sharp minor, op.39 [06:54], Waltz in D flat, op.64/1 [02:12]
LOUIS-CLAUDE DAQUIN (1694-1772)

Le coucou [02:00]
Georges BIZET trans. RACHMANINOV
L’Arlésienne: Minuet [02:41]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921) trans. SCRIABIN
Carnival of the Animals: The Swan [03:01]
MENDELSSOHN

Lied ohne Worte in C, op.67/4 [01:40]
GRIEG

Waltz in A minor, op.12/2 [01:41], Elfin Dance, op.12/4 [00:40]
Ernst von DOHNANYI (1877-1960)

Etude in F minor, op.28/6 [02:40]
Adolph von HENSELT (1814-1899)

Etude in F sharp minor, op.2/6 – Si oiseau j’étais [01:42]
Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925)

Etude, op.52/4 – "La Jongleuse" [01:48]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Children’s Corner: 1. Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum [02:02], 6. Golliwogg’s Cakewalk [03:09]
TCHAIKOVSKY

Troika, op.37b/11 [03:49], Humoresque in G, op.10/2 [02:45], Waltz in A flat, op.40/8 [02:58]
CD 10 [67:49]
RACHMANINOV

Prelude in G minor, op.23/5 [03:32], Prelude in G sharp minor, op.32/12 [02:31], Prelude in C sharp minor, op.3/2 [03:36], Prelude in G major, op.32/5 [02:59], Serenade in B flat, op.3/5 [03:07], Lilacs, op.21/5 [02:29], Polichinelle, op.3/4 [03:35], Polka de V.R. [04:00]
KREISLER trans. RACHMANINOV
Liebesleid [04:19]
LISZT trans. RACHMANINOV
Hungarian Rhapsody no.2 [10:25]
DOMENICO SCARLATTI (1685-1757) trans. TAUSIG
Pastorale in E minor (after Sonata in D minor, L.413) [03:59]
MOZART

Sonata in A, K.331: Theme and Variations [04:05]
CHOPIN

Waltz in A flat, op.42 [03:52], Waltz in A flat, op.64/3 [02:45]
RACHMANINOV

Polka de V.R [04:08], Barcarolle, op.10/3 [03:53], Prelude in C sharp minor, op.3/2 [03:41]
Sergei Rachmaninov (piano, except CD 3 where he conducts), with other artists as listed under the individual works
Dates and locations not given (sic!)

Yes, you’ve read aright, they really have issued all this historical material without a single date. I presume the general listener will at least have the gumption to work out that since the bloke doing the playing died in 1943, the recordings won’t be new ones. The more specialized collector, who is the more likely public for this sort of issue, will leap at the chance of getting all this material in single neat box, and so completing his Rachmaninov-as-pianist collection definitively. Except that it won’t be definitive if he doesn’t know the dates, if he can’t compare multiple versions knowing which came first. The specialist would also be grateful for matrix numbers, original issue dates and any other known information such as locations and producers. I did try to find this info on the internet but I didn’t succeed.

It would also be a treat to be told something about the transfer methods, and who made them. It seems to me that we have recordings ranging over about twenty years (would the truly dreadful-sounding "Polka italienne", the only actually unlistenable one, be the first?). I also think we have transfers made at different times and with different philosophies. The concertos have hardly ever been out of the catalogue and so LP transfers were made early on. The idea here seems to have been to make them sound as much like modern recordings as possible. At the other extreme, some of the originals were in poor, scratched condition (test pressings that somehow survived?), and here the idea seems to have been, reasonably enough, simply to "tell it like it is", with all the hissing and scratching unadulterated. The only thing is, the more hiss there is, the more Rachmaninov’s tone retains its bloom.

Likewise, if things like composer’s dates are important to you, you’d better print out the titles above, because you won’t find them in the booklet. Also, if you want the total timing of a piece like "Carnival" instead of just the individual pieces (22 of them), and if you trust my arithmetic, you’d better get that from here, too.

In view of the missing information, I was completely bewildered by the programmes on the original discs. Maybe there is some sort of chronological logic to it, but if we’re not told ... . After groping around in the dark I eventually listened in order of musical chronology and accordingly discuss the performances in that order. The booklet does contain quite a nice essay by Stefan Schikhaus, but quite honestly, if it had to be one or the other, I think any collector would have preferred the discographical information and foregone the essay.

BAROQUE

Not much of this, of course, and we have to make allowances for an unauthentic approach. Indeed, Rachmaninov seems happier playing his own full-textured transcription of three movements from a Partita for solo violin than the Sarabande actually written for the keyboard. The former has virtuoso flair while the latter is a little odd. He regularly halves the tempo for the arpeggio in the second bar introducing each part. What follows is intermittently imaginative but rather lacking in Bachian gravitas. Likewise the Handel, after a solid enunciation of the theme, tears along but sometimes he holds up the tempo for just a few notes in the middle of a variation. It’s all very wilful, enthralling to hear just once but hardly for repeated listening. It lacks the noble simplicity we normally value in this composer. Tausig’s Scarlatti mish-mash has a good deal of atmosphere and Daquin’s Le coucou is extremely poetic. He gives the cuckoo-calls a slightly droll, hesitant rhythm. Puzzling over why this sounds marvellous when he does it but would just sound like wonky rhythm if I did it, I think it must be because he nevertheless keeps the right hand absolutely even. We lesser fry would have to make our right hand wonky to match the cuckoo whereas he has complete independence of hands.

CLASSICAL

Not much of this either, with just about half a Mozart sonata spread over two discs. I say about half because he plays only the theme and variations 1, 2, 5 and 6 of the first movement; the only repeat he plays is the first of variation 6. Very personalized playing, with free tempo changes, often dwelling on just a single note here or there. The sound is of crystalline clarity, though, not romantic at all, and his love of the music shines through. There may be more to learn here than we would imagine, for his free approach makes the music far more interesting than many "correct" versions we hear. His "Rondo alla Turca" is delightfully unhurried and humorous and whatever we might think of certain points along the way the basic idea can stand as a model even today. It sounds as though Rachmaninov’s Mozart could have been highly interesting, but this brief glimpse is hardly enough to draw any conclusions.

The only other "classical" piece recorded is a romantic transcription, romantically played, of the flute solo movement from Gluck’s "Orfeo"

BEETHOVEN

At least the single work recorded is one of some scale, though Rachmaninov was evidently briefed to get it all on two 78 sides and therefore omits eight of the variations. There are one or two rhythmic distortions but by and large this is Beethoven playing in line with today’s conceptions. The sound is full and authoritative without ever becoming thick, and if his Beethoven makes a more beautiful sound than Schnabel’s in spite of the ancient recording, this is probably because the sound he created was more beautiful in itself. Each of the tiny variations is brought to life with great artistry and feeling for its particular atmosphere.

The deliberately grotesque rendering of the "Ruins of Athens" March hardly makes amends for the fact that we have not a single Beethoven sonata (or even movement) from Rachmaninov. The booklet track list, by the way, says that this transcription is Rachmaninov’s own, while Schickhaus’s note refers to it as Anton Rubinstein’s. The truth may be betwixt and between, since there are considerable variations from my copy of the Rubinstein transcription (an old Ashdown Edition), but perhaps not as many as there would be if Rachmaninov had worked quite independently from the Beethoven original.

EARLY ROMANTICS (EXCLUDING CHOPIN)

If there were interpreters in the 1920s and 1930s who were already producing a Beethoven style we can still recognize today, a real understanding of Schubert’s pianism is surely a post-war phenomenon. He was widely regarded as just the composer of touching little songs and it seems that Rachmaninov was happier playing transcriptions of these than original works. His own arrangement of "Wohin" is a bizarre affair, more for a party late at night than a piano recital, but the Liszt transcriptions have had many advocates. "Das Wandern" is straightforward and straightforwardly played, while in "Ständchen" Rachmaninov reveals his mastery of that independent "voicing" of melody and accompaniment which was such a feature of Golden Age pianism. It is by this means that a degree of rhythmic freedom in shaping the melody which would theoretically be more suited to Léhar remains convincing; the accompanying figure does not get bogged down trying to follow the vocal line, it maintains an independent lilt of its own.

In the Impromptu we can certainly admire the delicacy of Rachmaninov’s passage-work but his dynamics are frequently the exact reverse of those written; the chords which alternate with the passage-work are surprisingly dry while the stormy passion with which he invests the central section transports it to the world of the Russian romantics. I have happily accepted such aberrations and worse in his Chopin for there he is fundamentally in sympathy with the composer; here I am afraid they symptomatic of the fact that he had not found Schubert’s true voice.

Mendelssohn’s sparkling little encore pieces used to be more highly considered than they are now. In Rachmaninov’s own transcription of the "Midsummer Night’s Dream" scherzo I expected something a bit lighter and more fantastic than this admittedly proficient performance (recorded too close, perhaps?), but he is to be commended for leaving the beaten track for the two Studies. I feel a more urbanely fluent performance of the F major would have showed it in better light than this slightly aggressive treatment but the A minor is unusually audacious harmonically for Mendelssohn and Rachmaninov makes the most of it.

The piece given its German title "Spinnerlied" (Spinning Song) on the track list is usually called "The Bees’ Wedding" in English-speaking countries (neither name is Mendelssohn’s) and I can’t help thinking Rachmaninov had bees in mind, and a pretty hostile swarm of them in the performance on CD 5. He sometimes gives them an extra bar or two that is not written and begins the melody with a strange pause on the upbeat that makes no sense to me at all. Was it his own idea or did he have a corrupt edition? The two performances are identical in these matters but that on CD 9, which sounds from the recording quality to be the more recent, takes just that little more time to sound bubblingly humorous rather than angry, and is to my ears more Mendelssohnian. Indeed, apart from the oddities mentioned, I can’t imagine it played better.

Schumann’s "Carnaval", one of the very few large-scale solo works Rachmaninov was able to set down, is a famous recording but also a controversial one. I must say that, alongside the Schubert Impromptu it’s almost a model of fidelity! It’s true that Rachmaninov announces early on that he’s going to be his own man, when he plays the forte interjections in "Pierrot" staccato (they are marked legato), but it’s also true that I’ve never heard this usually rather doleful little piece sound so convincing and in any case this is imaginative music that cannot be played just literally. Rachmaninov’s flexible yet infectious rhythm carries him through in a performance that has tremendous overall sweep while finding time to characterize to the full every nook and cranny of the score. This is one of the great Schumann performances on record. The song transcription by Tausig, rumbustiously played, is less essential.

Liszt’s stock was pretty low in those days and it must be said that, while Rachmaninov’s three chosen pieces are fairly showy ones, he always sought out the music and the poetry in them. To demonstrate that a Liszt Polonaise could be worth hearing alongside a Chopin one was a piece of proselytising in its day and, though he presents the Hungarian Rhapsody in his own arrangement, it is a wonderfully musical performance, without a trace of camp gypsy antics, just infectious, joyous rhythms and an incredible clarity in the most taxing passages. These three performances are sufficient to place Rachmaninov high among Liszt interpreters.

CHOPIN

The two Liszt song transcriptions on CD 5 have a good deal of spirit. Heimkehr sounds like a good alternative for anyone who feels he’s heard or played the so-called "Revolutionary Study" a few times too often.

Like all pianists of his generation Rachmaninov was mostly confined to recording pieces that would go onto a single 78 side. The 2nd Sonata and the 3rd Ballade on CD 6 and the 3rd Scherzo CD 9 offer rare opportunities to hear him in something more extended. The Ballade is the most impressive, indeed extraordinary. The tender expressiveness of the opening, with its agogic freedom, its refined dynamic range and its subtle voicing reveal a great pianist as much as, maybe more than, the flights of prestidigitation heard later. In common with many other pianists and conductors of those days he does not see structure as something to be created by a steady rhythmic trajectory, he will fly away one moment and hold back the next, but somehow the performance retains an overall shape. He finds a range of mood and expression in this piece that not many present-day interpreters would dare to attempt.

Much the same could be said of the Sonata. You will have to bear with him when he follows Anton Rubinstein’s famous trick (criticised even in its day) of treating the Funeral March as a steady crescendo the first time round, then giving it a crashing start when it returns after the trio and thereafter making a steady diminuendo, rather than following Chopin’s own dynamic scheme. Indeed, I would suggest that you don’t get out scores to follow these performances (I purposely didn’t); just listen to them as the work of a great re-creative artist.

The Scherzo is one of his more eccentric performances. The faster sections are quite manically fast – I have to envy anyone who can rattle off octaves like that – while the chorale is nostalgically slow and gloomy. Indeed, with its haunting bell-interjections this is a rare case where Rachmaninov seems not to have been able to resist making it sound like a piece of his own. In general, whatever you may think, he respects the composer’s style as he perceives it and does not try to make the music sound like his own.

The presence of nine waltzes spread between CDs 6, 9 and 10 (and two versions of two of them) means he got half-way towards a "complete" version, so we can get a good idea of his vision of this particular area of Chopin’s output. Only in the E minor do I find him fast and snatched – did he have to squeeze it onto a single side with another piece as well? For the rest, he has a wonderful sense of rhythmic vivacity, treating op.18 remarkably simply and steadily. He finds great elegance in the G flat and his two versions of the so-called "Minute Waltz" are unrepentantly just below and just above the two-minute mark. This is not because he is so very slow in the outer sections – quite the reverse – but because he relaxes a good deal in the middle. The two performances are fascinatingly different. That on track 9 begins by absolutely tearing away – he’d have got through it in under a minute if he’d kept this up all the way through! – and then treats the middle section extremely freely and nostalgically. That on track 5 is in the same mould but relatively disciplined. This is one of the occasions where I most regret the lack of proper information. Which came first? How far apart? Were they both passed for release? Did he realize, on hearing track 9, that he’d exaggerated and deliberately play straight the next take? Or did he think track 5 too plain and make a freer version? The two versions of op.64/3 have identical timings and the only substantial difference is that the performance on CD 10 has such heavy surfaces that you’re unlikely to want to hear it very often. The op.42 waltz on disc 10 is another touchstone of Rachmaninov’s heady elegance in this music.

RUSSIANS (EXCLUDING RACHMANINOV HIMSELF)

The impression is that Rachmaninov was no great ambassador for the music of his native land, as often as not playing it, if at all, in his own arrangements, but the recorded repertoire may not give a wholly true picture. I understand that he was very interested in "Pictures at an Exhibition" and at first considered making his own arrangement (as Horowitz did), but then decided to let well alone. Unfortunately my informant was not able to confirm whether he actually played it in the end.

So here, on CD 7 we have a trio of transcriptions, beginning with an upfront Mussorgsky "Hopak" and ending with the famous "Flight of the Bumblebee" arrangement. Not many of those who later took it up have played it with the same miraculous lightness. I couldn’t find a copy of the original Tchailovsky "Lullaby" to see what Rachmaninov has done with it, but to my ears there’s more Rachmaninov than Tchaikovsky here. It’s certainly effective and another example of his ability to separate melodic and accompanying strands.

Of the original pieces, he certainly makes a case for the Borodin Scherzo as being both pianistically and musically effective. Tchaikovsky’s "Troika" is frankly weird. The timing of almost 4 minutes (about 3 is normal) raised my eyebrows and sure enough the opening section is treated as a romantically expressive slow piece. Yet Tchaikovsky marked it "Allegro moderato" and it usually bounds along as joyfully as a sleigh-ride should. Then in the middle section he dashes off at a "normal" tempo so what happens when the original theme is combined with snowy 16th-note figuration? He keeps up his fast tempo until the snowy figuration stops, drops back to a romantically inflected "Andante mesto", tears away again and adds an extra bar or two at the end, making the Troika slow down and stop. But since Tchaikovsky put no rallentando, surely he wanted to give the impression that the sleigh was disappearing in the distance? The performance on CD 9 has a quite different acoustic and heavy surface noise but the interpretation is basically the same.

Interestingly, Richter (BBC Legends) sounds to have been haunted by this interpretation, while realizing it was wrong. His own performance is an uneasy compromise between what Rachmaninov did and what Tchaikovsky wrote, with an opening much more moderato than allegro but not actually andante, a dashing middle section and similar though less extreme inconsistency of tempi when the opening theme is combined with the snowy figuration. Both pianists seem to be creating problems over a piece that has none if played simply and as written, rather like a spare movement from the "Nutcracker".

Of the other Tchaikovsky pieces the "Humoresque" (better known today by Stravinsky’s use of it in "The Fairy’s Kiss"; the curious harmonic clashes are Tchaikovsky’s own, not Stravinsky’s) gets an excellent, uncomplicated performance. I had no score for the Waltz but it has the grace and elegance typical of Tchaikovsky’s lighter moments. The Scriabin is another controversial performance, however. It is very beautiful but far more an "Andante espressivo" than the "Allegro agitato" (fourth-note = 132) marked. But here the question arises – was this Rachmaninov’s personal idea or had he heard the composer play it that way? (In the case of the Tchaikovsky "Troika" too much time had already passed for direct contact to be likely and Tchaikovsky didn’t play in public so far as I know, but we cannot rule out the possibility that Rachmaninov had known somebody with the necessary inside knowledge to tell him Tchaikovsky wanted it to be played in this manner).

ODDS AND ENDS

Many of these are further transcriptions by Rachmaninov himself. The two performances of Kreisler’s Liebesfreud could hardly be more different. That on CD 5 is two minutes shorter and seems to represent a cynical attempt to make the music sound even more rubbishy than it actually is. For the version on CD 7 he had recovered his poise and takes all the time he needs to dwell on the old-world charm of the piece in a manner close to that of Kreisler himself. The Liebesleid on CD 10 is also lovingly expounded. He has fun with the Paderewski, the Strauss/Tausig and the Bizet while the Scriabin arrangement of Saint-Saëns’ Swan is a touchstone of his ability to balance melody and accompaniment. Many a cellist might envy such a richly singing tone which really does seem a separate instrument compared with the delicate accompanying arpeggios – all the more remarkable when the melody is usually in the middle of the texture.

The Grieg pieces were perhaps memories of his earliest piano lessons – and in the case of the "Elfin Dance" not remembered quite right, since he adds a few bars here and subtracts others there. Not many children could play it this fast and I wish Rachmaninov hadn’t done so either. The "Waltz", on the other hand, is exquisite. It also solves a mystery. When listening on headphones I had noticed quite often a suspicion of a wheezy grunting sound that might have been some sort of defect of the recording, or Rachmaninov’s beloved Pekinese which he insisted on taking into the studio (I don’t really know whether he had one, don’t take me up on this), or, just possibly, Rachmaninov’s own vocalizing. In the middle section of this piece the wheezing grunt, however out of tune, goes up and down with the melody, and Pekinese can’t do this. So it’s Rachmaninov’s own voice which we hear from time to time.

From memories of the nursery, the Dohnányi, Henselt and Moszkowski are maybe memories of the Conservatoire (but perhaps the first of these had not yet been written when Rachmaninov was a student); they show the fine state of his technique. In Debussy, as in Grieg, he scores one hit and one miss. "Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum" has some moments of absolute perfection, but he substitutes Debussy’s meticulously worked-out dynamic scheme with one of his own. He is occasionally free with "Golliwogg’s Cakewalk" but his rhythm is so infectious and the actual sonority so beautifully realized that this has to be one of the outstanding Debussy performances on disc.

Schikhaus tells us that Rachmaninov recorded "a number of Russian folksongs" with Plevitskaya, so perhaps he might have explained why, in a complete edition, there is only one here. At first I was aghast at her voice, but then I realized she should perhaps be labelled "vocalist" rather than "mezzo-soprano" for it’s not a classically trained voice at all, more a cabaret style with a slight suggestion of Edith Piaf. Once I’d got my bearings I found it rather fascinating.

We really should have been told the provenance of the duet with Natalie Rachmaninov – the sound is quite unspeakably awful, like a honky-tonk piano recorded on wax.

RACHMANINOV’S OWN COMPOSITIONS – THE SOLO WORKS

In a way less need be said here since the interpretations are obviously not up for criticism. It would be disingenuous to say that this music was made for Rachmaninov to play, for he wrote most of it in the early part of his career when he considered himself – and was considered – principally a composer. Knowing full well that the life of a piece of music depends on it being performed, obviously he wanted other pianists to take it up. Nevertheless, the particular features of Rachmaninov’s pianism, and in particular his quite exceptional ability to create a dialogue between two or more melodic strands while at the same time maintaining entirely separate his often obsessive accompanying figures and any other harmonic support, and to colour all these elements so that his often teeming textures are perfectly clear to the listener, are desirable in any music, but are features which often make all the difference between a Rachmaninov work sounding a thing of beauty or merely barnstorming virtuosity (or just a mess). Far more than matters of rubato or even tempi, which may be personal to some degree, any pianist intending to play this music should study these discs carefully to come to terms with the type of pianism required. It would be easy enough to imitate the extreme rallentandos he inserts in the G major prelude, or his sudden spurts of tempo in the filigree decorative passages; I hope anyone who tries this will also feel bound to reproduce (if he can!) the way his accompanying left-hand quintuplets shimmer with a life of their own and the rocking figure played contemporaneously in the left hand seems to continue its individual way whatever rubato is taking place in the melody itself.

Two other personal features might be noted. One is a tendency to double-dot any dotted rhythms, as in the G minor or the aforesaid G major. The other is a way of beginning a lyrical theme with an accent, particularly if it is in dialogue with another theme. This way the listener can hear very clearly the way the argument is being thrown from voice to voice. A last point is that the triple versions of the inevitable C sharp minor Prelude and the "Polka di V.R.", as well as the double versions of the "Serenade", show that he was fairly consistent in his interpretations of his own music, though I wish I had been told how far apart in time the versions are.

THE CONCERTOS

These are some of the most famous records ever made! In these larger-scale works we can note some other features of his pianism. While many later pianists have emphasized the weight of the writing, making the music resemble the "Hollywood concerto" which drew upon it, Rachmaninov himself leans closer to his pianistic roots, with a gentle Schumannesque dialogue between the voices, combined with flexible, yielding rhythms, in the lyrical passages, and a Mendelssohnian sparkle in the brilliant passage-work. Of course he can produce weight and power when needed – as in the cadenza to the first movement of no.1 – but this is reserved for passing moments. Nor does he emphasize the louring gloom, preferring flowing tempi and balanced structures.

The question is, should we follow him in this? It is sometimes said, "Ah, if only we could hear how Bach or Mozart or Beethoven played their music". The principal lesson from Rachmaninov’s own recordings, above all those of his concertos, seems to be that, if we could hear Bach and Mozart and Beethoven playing their own works, people would go on playing them how they damn well like anyway. But is this entirely wrong? Another lesson from Rachmaninov’s recordings, this time not of his own music, is that in view of the freedom with which he interpreted other people’s music he may even have expected people to play his own music with similar freedom. So is Richter’s much slower version of Concerto no.2 a lugubrious aberration, or does it legitimately reveal a particular aspect of Rachmaninov’s psyche? Was the composer over-reluctant to display his neuroses in public when playing, even though he had done so when composing?

The lesson to be taken to heart, it seems to me, is more the type of pianism required than relatively superficial, and in any case personal, issues such as tempi, rubato, etc. A recent attempt by Stephen Hough to ape these more superficial aspects of these performances seemed to me unconvincing, though mine was very much a minority view. Regarding no.2, I do find Richter most impressive – I am referring to the Melodiya version with Sanderling – and Rachmaninov himself a shade too easy-flowing. A pianist I find very satisfying in this piece is Stanislav Neuhaus, son of the legendary Heinrich Neuhaus, teacher of Richter and many others, and a great pianist and teacher in his own right. With timings only a few seconds longer than Rachmaninov’s, he allowed the music just that little more breathing space without actually changing its character. But as far as I am aware his performance is not available in any form.

With no.3 there is the mystery of the cuts Rachmaninov allowed – not just a question of fitting it onto a given number of 78s for the original issue had a blank side. Otherwise it’s a marvellous performance. For an uncut performance the Ashkenazy/Ormandy takes a lot of beating. It’s generally considered that Michelangeli surpassed Rachmaninov at his own game (by which I mean that the type of pianism and the style of the performance is similar) in no.4. I have not heard finer performances of no.1 or the Paganini variations.

Presumably the performance of no.2 on CD 8 is the earlier one. Rachmaninov is freer here in the first movement (and Stokowski is less subtle in the transitions), about the same in the second – demonstrating both times the virtues of not stopping every time the harmonies change – and surprisingly humdrum in the finale which is much better in the later performance.

RECORDINGS WITH KREISLER

The real problem here is the balance. Kreisler is recorded close up with a gritty, airless sound considerably removed from the sweet timbre he is reported to have had and to which some of his other recordings testify. I suppose the transfer engineers might have tried to attenuate this, but they would then have exacerbated the other problem, which is that Rachmaninov’s piano is already muffled and recessed. This plays havoc with Beethoven’s inventive dialogue between two equal partners. The Schubert has the piano in a more conventionally accompanying role but even here you feel the need for a warm cushion of support for the violin which otherwise becomes oppressively dominating. And while Grieg hardly aspired to the contrapuntal virtuosity of Beethoven you only have to hear a badly balanced performance to realise how much he depends on a continuous exchange of melodic phrases between the two instruments for his effect.

Not much pure listening enjoyment to be got from this, then. Those preparing to play these works might wish to pay heed to them. Vague fears of gratuitous virtuosity from Rachmaninov and excessive schmaltz from Kreisler can be forgotten; both musicians play with unaffected simplicity and a sense of enjoyment. However incompletely, the CD does provide us with some evidence of Rachmaninov’s abilities as a chamber musician.

RACHMANINOV THE CONDUCTOR

When Rachmaninov emigrated to America he was already known there as both pianist and conductor. Indeed, while he had aimed up till that time to be first and foremost a composer, his reputation at home and in Europe generally as a conductor was extraordinarily high, perhaps no les than that he enjoyed as a pianist. He quickly saw that he would not be able to make a living in the United States as a composer, so the choice was between playing and conducting. Since he was twice offered the conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra he certainly did not lack opportunities in this second role. However, he had misgivings of his own for his conducting had been mostly limited to the Russian repertoire and he felt that any repertory deficiencies could be better made up in private, as it were, at the piano. Thus he chose to be a pianist.

Though it is difficult to be sure on the strength of a recorded legacy amounting to less than an hour of his own compositions, all the evidence is that Rachmaninov the conductor could indeed have matched Rachmaninov the pianist. While it is true that an orchestra of the quality of the Philadelphia, maybe pre-rehearsed by Stokowski or Ormandy, could have bailed out a respected composer who wasn’t much cop on the rostrum (this has frequently been done), there can be no doubting Rachmaninov’s control over events, nor the fundamental similarity in the interpretative method he shows in the two roles. The first theme of the opening movement of the symphony, for example, shows exactly the same precision in balancing melody and countermelody, while the lyrical themes are played with great freedom (perfectly controlled) yet with a fundamental sense of reserve. He can obtain great brilliance, stunning attack, and can also suddenly lighten the textures. As far as the somewhat strident and overloaded recordings allow us to tell, he always achieved great transparency. There is no gratuitous gushing.

If we compare him with Koussevitsky in "The Isle of the Dead", we may note that the latter conductor is more concerned with passing details, frequently illuminating the textures from within. Rachmaninov is more remote, suggesting a slumbering giant which, when it does awake, achieves colossal power. We may also note that Rachmaninov is no less able than Koussevitsky to involve the orchestra and the audience in an experience of mesmerizing intensity. Rachmaninov conductors, then, can learn from these records no less than Rachmaninov pianists about the kind of orchestral style he wanted.

CONCLUSIONS

Schickhaus’s essay quotes Arthur Rubinstein’s "strong opinion" that Rachmaninov was "a greater pianist than a composer", the "most fascinating ... since Busoni". If we reflect that Busoni’s meagre discography (about half a CD’s worth) simply doesn’t permit us to verify his stature, we should be grateful that we can get at least a fair idea of Rachmaninov’s playing. As I said at the beginning, this 10-CD box of everything he recorded (leaving aside the piano rolls) ought to provide every collector with a definitive solution. It doesn’t, firstly because of the missing information in the booklet. Could Sony/BMG not reconsider this? But it also doesn’t – and it is perhaps right that it shouldn’t – because of the transfers. Not that they are not good, according to their various lights. But since it is startling how different the same performance can sound transferred in different ways, I shall always be interested to hear what Mark Obert-Thorn, for example, might make of some of these discs. My possession of this box does not mean I will get no further versions of these performances.

All the same, and in spite of the booklet, the opportunity to gather the entire legacy of one of the greatest of all pianists in a single box is not one to be missed.

Christopher Howell

 



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