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Ruth Slenczynska – Tribute to Rachmaninoff
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Preludes [27:00]
Prelude in C major Op.32 No.1
Prelude in D minor Op.23 No.3
Prelude in G sharp minor Op.32 No.12
Prelude in G minor Op.23 No.5
Prelude in E flat major Op.23 No.6
Prelude in E flat minor Op.23 No.9
Prelude in B flat major Op.23 No.2
rec. broadcast, 1963
Bonus: An Interview with Ruth Slenczynska; “Remembering Josef Hofmann”, recorded in 2002 [29:00]
Ruth Slenczynska (piano)
Audio; Mono, Video; 4; 3, Black and White, Region Code 0 (all regions), Subtitles; none
VAI DVD 4412 [56:00]


This is a rather fascinating DVD though its audience will be confined to confirmed pianophiles and admirers of the remarkable Ruth Slenczynska. It’s cast in two parts. The first is a studio broadcast of seven Rachmaninoff Preludes which, given her youthful association with the composer, is always of interest. Naturally it’s in unfussy black and white. The second part is a much more recent 2002 taped interview in which she talks to camera about her teacher – one of her teachers, it would be more felicitous to add – Josef Hofmann. The interview is slightly longer than the concert and even taken together the DVD doesn’t break the sixty-minute mark. Its compression will perhaps be disappointing to some, who might have wanted greater concentration on her pianism. But we can still enjoy the fruits of that 1963 studio recital.

It too has an interview. I’m sure I should know the craggy interlocutor who welcomes Slenczynska to his vaguely Versailles chaise. She, in her trademark Joan of Arc hairdo, wears modest black, with sleeves raised to the top of the forearms. She plays the C major Op.32 No.1 and then joins the interviewer for a brief reminiscence. I wish Olin Downes’ silly comments as to her youthful genius had not been introduced – they weren’t helpful then, were still unhelpful in 1963 and have remained so ever since. No one wants to be saddled with that level of expectation – as it will invariably be thwarted. As she spoke, in a charming and very natural unaffected way, I was drawn to the ribbon and medal pinned to her top. Doubtless someone will inform me whence it comes.

She talks about Rachmaninoff, how he taught her to take tea but baulked at actually formally teaching her the piano, which he did de facto. He apparently also took a look at the young girl’s hands and pronounced that she had “overcooked spaghetti fingers.”

Her playing is vital and lithe. The programme is of her own devising and a “bouquet” designed to bring out moods and keys. She plays a Baldwin. Most of the shots are over the right shoulder but there are some static and revealing shots from the left side of the keyboard. She stops again after Prelude in G minor and rather nervously, smilingly addresses the camera. One valuable nugget is the reinforcing of the vivid pictorialism of Rachmaninoff’s poetic inspirations. We know of the paintings of course but she notes that he told her apple trees were an inspiration in one of the E flats.

The interview, given thirty years later, sees her “Joan of Arc” now grey but she seems otherwise miraculously unchanged, though she was around seventy-seven at the time. She was four when Hofmann heard her – she’d heard his astounding Chopin in concert. Her first Mills College concert was given on a nine foot Steinway but she remains characteristically modest, human and warm. You imagine that being with her would be fun – and she says the same of her colleagues Bolet and Cherkassky whom she seemed especially to like for their human qualities. She has managed to preserve a child-like wonder about the people she’s met and her career and she never misses a chance to praise a colleague – extensively so in the case of her college friend Samuel Barber.

The booklet is effectively a single page and there are no other bonuses or features. Spartan perhaps but geared to the specialist. But then VAI is that sort of company and their good work continues here.

Jonathan Woolf


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