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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Première Soviet LP Recordings
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 1 [26:24] Sviatoslav Richter (piano) USSR RTV Large Symphony Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40 [25:52]
Yakov Zak (piano) Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Kyrill Kondrashin
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 [21:10]
Yakov Zak (piano) USSR State Symphony Orchestra/Kyrill Kondrashin rec. Moscow, 1952
CD 2
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 [30:38]
Lev Oborin (piano) Radio Orchestra/Alexander Gauk
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 [39:09]
Lev Oborin (piano) USSR State Orchestra/Konstantin Ivanov
rec. 1947 (No. 2) 1949 (No. 3) 1952 (Rhapsody) 1954 (No. 4) 1955 (No. 1)
Pdf booklet included
APR RECORDINGS APR6005 [73:26 + 69:47]

The composer’s own US première recordings aside, these are the earliest, or among the earliest, Soviet recordings of the Russian composer’s works for piano and orchestra. These significant transfers have been made by a company who have made it something of a mission to present the regrettably eclipsed treasures of the Russian piano school: see their web-page.
It should be remembered that until the early 1970s Rachmaninov was sneered at as a purveyor of vacuous slop. The Soviets themselves took a while to allow his music back into the fold of a country he had left forever when the Revolution took a grip. He never returned and his bereavement from his homeland is said to have permeated his music with nostalgia.
The first LP recording here is from 1947 when the composer had been only four years in the grave. Political change opened the door in the USSR, although the final years of Stalin up to his death in 1953 can hardly be said to have been all that liberal. By the early 1960s Rachmaninov’s music was well and truly welcomed back. Colossuses such as Kondrashin, Svetlanov, Ovchinnikov, Golovanov and Sveshnikov made recordings with all the freshness and conviction of zealous converts. Kondrashin’s 1963 stereo recording of the Symphonic Dances has not been excelled. Kondrashin is represented here as are Gauk, Ivanov and Sanderling. The latter was to record the Rachmaninov Second Symphony in 1956 with the Leningrad Phil while on tour in Berlin. This can be heard on DG’s ‘The Originals’ series (0289 449 7672 4).
Turning now to the pianists and these Melodiya mono LP recordings. The only one likely to be at all familiar is the First Concerto with Richter who famously went on to record the Second Concerto in Warsaw with Wisŀocki in 1960. His Second continues to serve as a foundation of the DG catalogue some fifty-plus years down the line. The present reading of No. 1 is of coruscating brilliance with sparks flying everywhere. Despite its Tchaikovskian moments I would not have said that it was particularly strong on sentiment; kinetic excitement being favoured over romance.
Yakov Zak (1913-1976) was a pupil of Heinrich Neuhaus in the 1930s and had his own honour role of pupils including Petrov, Toradze, Egorov, Silberstein and Virsaladze. He is the least internationally known among the three pianists included. Allowing for one wobbly moment from the orchestra in the first movement of the Fourth Concerto this is gripping music-making with a lot more heart to it than Richter accommodated with the First Concerto. This version remained stubbornly confined behind the Iron Curtain while Michelangeli’s classic version for EMI Classics held sway in the Western world until the mid-1960s and early 1970s when Rachmaninov’s music began to gain ground. Sure, the finale’s skyscraper-topplingfffs are too much for the Soviet technology of the time but, by heck, this is glorious music-making. Zak is caught in boxy and rather treble-blunted sound in the Paganini Rhapsody, recorded two years earlier. Again Kondrashin keeps the emotional concentration level high as he does in the Fourth Concerto. That said, the violins in the famous Variation 15 are more forthright than sumptuous or starry. Kondrashin was a great Rachmaninovian, as his 1963 Moscow recording of the Symphonic Dances will attest; you can hear it in its true splendour on Beulah 1PD81. It’s in the same league as Sveshnikov’s recording of the Rachmaninov Vespers. The Rhapsody is separately tracked so you can move around the variations with convenient precision. Brian Crimp in his liner-note points towards Zak’s death being due to torture by the KGB.
The second CD has Lev Oborin (1907-1974) centre-stage for Rachmaninov’s two most famous concertos. The Second was made in 1947 and was the first piece of Rachmaninov’s music to be released on LP in the Soviet Union. The low catalogue number (D07/08) implies as much. The conductor was the ubiquitous Alexander Gauk, whose powerful yeoman work in mainstream overtures I heard recently courtesy of an excellent transfer from Klassic Haus of an ancient Saga LP (GSC038) and is enshrined in two Brilliant Classics boxes. He is more of a romantic in No. 2 than Konstantin Ivanov in No. 3; strange given Ivanov’s intoxicatingly successful recording of Rimsky’s Antar. In fact Ivanov does open the floodgates in the finale of No. 3.
A few more clicks, thuds and pockmarks have survived through to these two transfers on CD2 than there were for the works on CD1. You can hear them, for example, in the first movement of No. 3. Also there is that treble-attenuated sound found to a marginally more severe degree in Zak’s Rhapsody. That said, the last two movements of No. 3 are in no way subject to that problem. Grainy distortion amid the brilliance of the start of the third movement of No. 2 must also be weathered. The microphone placement for the finale of No. 2 captures the woodwind with more prominence than you may be used to. All this said, the wonder is that these artefacts have been captured in such listenable sound from such rare Soviet originals. Those with an aversion to warbly Soviet French horns might want to avert their ears in the first movement of No. 3.
We are awash in Rachmaninov these days. It is so easy to forget how rare - and sometimes reviled - a bird his music was when these recordings were made. This set of historical recordings is a needful corrective and offers some reinvigorating perspectives on well known works that some may come to have regarded as spavine warhorses.
These are all mono recordings for which in a few cases some allowance and ear-adjustment time must be factored in, especially in the case of the second disc. Historical treasures for the Rachmaninov specialist. Any misgivings about recording quality can be stilled by the fact that this well-filled set retails as two CDs for the price of one. A fresh window opened out onto well-known music.
If you are looking for somewhat more modern recordings you will go a long way to beat Earl Wild with the RPO and Horenstein - last appearing on Chandos and Chesky (1 and 4; 2; 3). For the composer’s own pioneering American recordings there are many sources but the Naxos versions should be easy enough to come by.
Rob Barnett 

Masterwork Index: Rachmaninov piano concertos