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Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Solo Recordings, Vol. 2 - Victor Recordings
see end of review for track listing
Sergei Rachmaninov (piano)
rec. 1925-42
NAXOS 8.112058 [74:53]

Experience Classicsonline

This disc is another fine example of the luck music-lovers of today have in being able to listen to great performers from the past. To have access to the pianism of Sergei Rachmaninov is a true privilege and this despite the inevitable background noise on recordings made up to 86 years ago.

Rachmaninov’s prowess as a pianist is legendary and, in fact when one hundred of today’s leading pianists were asked by BBC Music Magazine in 2010 to name their favourite pianist from the recorded era, and given only three votes each, the overwhelming majority gave Rachmaninov as their choice over many other famous names, including the likes of Richter, Rubinstein and Horowitz. That a composer should be thought of so highly as a pianist comes as no surprise when you learn that, having left Russia in 1917 with his family, never to return, he had to make his living principally as a pianist. Despite his hating his previous experience of America he decided that was where he would be the most successful. From 1918 when, in four months he gave forty concerts, he spent the next 25 years touring the US for six months each year and spent one month touring Europe, leaving just five months for rest and composition.

When he recorded he was a perfectionist re-recording pieces over and over again until he was satisfied and ordered all rejected takes to be destroyed. The recording on this disc of Mendelssohn’s ‘Spinning Song’ (track 38) took no less than 22 takes before he was satisfied and it is take 21 that is included here. Every track demonstrates his supreme artistry. The enormous span of his hands shows in an ability to cover so many notes so quickly when required, but it is “the space between the notes” that is just as important, as it is to be quiet as well as loud, all of which is amply demonstrated in track two. It left me breathless in admiration.

The excerpts from Beethoven’s 32 Variations show his thunderous power coupled with whispered passages that makes the experience one full of awe. His playing of Schubert on tracks 31-33 is magnificent and the clean up job done by Ward Marston is nothing short of miraculous with very little distortion remaining, despite 2 of them dating from 1925! His Liszt playing shows supreme delicacy; marvel at the Polonaise No.2 in E major on track 35. I mentioned the fact that he insisted on re-recording Mendelssohn’s ‘Spinning Song’ (track 38) no less than 22 times. What he rejected one can only speculate about but the take he finally accepted is scintillating. His recording of Borodin’s Scherzo in A flat major makes me want to seek out more of Borodin’s piano music which is delightful and fabulously played here in 1935.

The Tchaikovsky recording from The Seasons is of November and was made in 1928. There is some distortion here but what comes through is really lovely and 83 years ago is a long time in recorded musical history! Track 41 is of Scriabin’s Prelude in F sharp minor and is as fine a recording of it as I’ve ever heard. The penultimate track is from Paderewski’s Humoresque de concert, No.1- Menuet célèbre and is 3:55 of pure joy whilst the last track is of Johann Strauss II’s Valse Caprice No.2, arranged by Tausig. Once again it shows Rachmaninov as a supreme artist who could be thunderous when required and as quiet and light as you could possibly want at other times. The total experience makes you shake your head in wonder. This was recorded in 1927 and stands as both an amazing tribute to a towering talent as well as a wonderful job performed by Ward Marston as audio restoration engineer.

This is a disc to cherish and for anyone who can ignore those imperfections that remain is a truly glorious experience.

Steve Arloff

Track listing
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Partita No. 4 in D major, BWV 828: V. Sarabande [4:19] rec. 16 December 1925
George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Suite No.5 in E major, HWV 430: IV. Air & Variations ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ [4:25] rec. 3 January 1936
Christoph Willibrand GLUCK (1714-1787)
Orfeo ed Euridice: Mélodie (arr. Sgambati) [3:33] rec. 14 May 1925
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Sonata No.11 in A major, K.331: III. Rondo alla turca [2:19] rec. 14 May 1925
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80 (Excerpts: Theme, Variations 1-14, 19, 22-28, 31 & 32) [8:08]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
The Ruins of Athens, Op.113: 30. Turkish March (arr. Anton Rubinstein) [3:12] rec. 14 December 1925
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Impromptu in A flat major, Op.90, no.4 [4:34] Rec. 29 December 1925
Ständchen, (arr. Liszt) S560/R245. No.7 from Schwanengesang, D.957 [4:31] rec. 27 February 1942
Das Wandern, (arr. Liszt) S565/R249. No.1 from Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795 [1:44] rec. 14 April 1925
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Zwei Konzertetüden, S145/R6: No.2 Gnomenreigen (Dance of the gnomes) [3:09] Rec. 16th December 1925
Polonaise No.2 in E major, S.223/R44 [7:49] rec. 13 April 1925
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Three Etudes, Op.104b: No.2 in F major [2:55]; No.3 in A minor [1:51] rec. 25 April 1927.
Songs without Words, Book 6, Op.67: No.4 in C major ‘Spinning Song’ [1:45] rec. 25 April 1928
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Scherzo in A major [3:02] rec. 23 December 1935
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Seasons, Op.37b: November ‘Troika en traineaux’ [4:00] rec. 11 April 1928
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Prelude in F sharp minor, Op.11, No.8 [2:41] rec. 16 April 1929
Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Humoresque de concert, Op.14: Menuet célèbre in G major [3:55] rec. 5 April 1927
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Valse Caprice No.2 (arr. Tausig) , Op.167 ‘Man lebt nur einmal’ [7:08] rec. 5 April 1927



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