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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1875-1943)
Sergio Fiorentino Edition - Volume 3
Prelude Op.3, No.2 in C sharp minor [4:33}
Preludes, op.23 [31:21]
Preludes, op.32 [36:38]
Piano Sonata no.1 in D minor, op.28 [37:54]
Piano Sonata no.2 in B flat minor, op.36 [18:58]
Transcriptions: Rachmaninov songs: Daisies (Op. 38/8) [1:56]; Lilacs (Op. 21/5) [2:06]; Vocalise [3:59]; Kreisler: Liebesleid [3:57]; Mendelssohn: Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream [3:43]
Sergio Fiorentino (piano)
rec. Greenwich Town Hall, London, 22 September 1963, (Preludes); Siemensvilla, Berlin, 14-15 October 1995 (Sonata Op.28), 8 October 1994 (Sonata Op.36), Salle Wagram, Paris, 30 May 1962 (transcriptions)
PIANO CLASSICS PCLD0065 [75:35 + 73:12]

It is amazing to think, with pianism of this calibre, that it was only at the end of Sergio Fiorentino's life that international recognition came. Maybe this was due to the type of person he was. His friends described him in glowing terms. He was devoid of an ego and radiated an inner spirituality and calmness. He was totally non-materialistic, refusing to accept fees for lessons, and accepting whatever concert fee was given him. Yet as a teacher he could be a stern taskmaster.

He was born in Naples in 1927, and at the age of eleven went to study at the Conservatory San Pietro a Majella with a stipend from the Italian Ministry of Education, in recognition of his talent. Later he attended master-classes with Carlo Zecchi in Salzburg. With several competition successes under his belt he eventually embarked on a concert career. He maintained that his role models were Alfred Cortot, Walter Gieseking and Edwin Fischer. He discovered he had a particular affinity for the music and pianism of Sergei Rachmaninov. He liked the way the Russian's music was 'laid out fantastically for the piano'. A year after he made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1954, he was severely injured in a plane accident and, as a result, had to curtail his performing career. For four years he was laid low in a limbo and took up teaching. On his return to the concert platform he learned, to his dismay, that he had been largely forgotten.

At the end of the fifties, he began a second career in England. In the intervening years his playing had matured, and he drew admiration from such luminaries as Michelangeli and Horowitz. Although his own country, Italy, was indifferent towards him, he started to make some recordings in England, produced by William Barrington-Coupe of Joyce Hatto fame, under pseudonyms such as Paul Procopolis. I remember my very first piano recording in the 'sixties was an LP of Mr. Procopolis playing the 'Emperor' Concerto with the Leipzig Pro Arte Symphony Orchestra and Johann Walde. I presume 'Johann Walde' was another of Barrington-Coupe's creations. In 1974 Fiorentino withdrew from the concert stage in order to devote his time to teaching. In the early 1990s he made a surprisingly late come back, but his Indian summer was to be brief. It was sadly cut short by his sudden death on 22 August 1998, aged seventy.

Fiorentino, unusually, recorded both sets of Preludes plus the Op. 3 no. 2 in C sharp minor in one session on 22 September 1963. It appears no time was allocated for retakes, and a few minor blemishes pepper these readings. These in no way detract from what are compelling performances. He doesn't perfume or over-romanticize Rachmaninov as some, neither is his playing mannered in any way. Despite each Prelude's brevity, in his hands they stand alone, individually characterized. By the end, I felt as though I'd been taken on a journey. In Op.23, No.4 I love the poetry he brings to the piece and the way he voices the chords. No. 6 is rhythmically incisive and buoyant. Many will be taken by the brilliance and passion of the opening Prelude of Op. 32, and the untrammelled virtuosity of No. 4. In contrast No. 5 in G major is characterized by a luminous transparency and No. 10 by bleakness and desolation. In the last Prelude of the set, in D flat major, despite the reined-in gestures a nobility pervades. On the downside, however, sound quality is an issue with these early 'sixties recordings. Allowances have to be made. In the Prelude in B flat major Op. 23, No. 2 there is distortion, loss of clarity and detail as a result of the powerful dynamic range that Fiorentino achieves. The same dated sound applies to the transcriptions.

The two Sonatas, recorded in Berlin in the mid-nineties are not afflicted with the same sonic limitations. Indeed the sound of the piano is ideal, allowing the pianist's myriad colours to emerge. At thirty-seven minutes the First Sonata can appear sprawling and meandering in lesser hands. Fiorentino holds this vast structure together with cogency. The Second Sonata is much better known and is more structurally concise. Fiorentino brings to the score passion, drama, excitement, virtuosity and lyricism. He achieves the necessary contrasts between grandeur and intimacy. His sonatas can stand side by side with the best recordings of these works by the likes of Lugansky, Ashkenazy and Horowitz (2nd Sonata).

This is Piano Classics' third volume in their Sergio Fiorentino edition, and very welcome indeed. The excellent booklet notes, in English only, set the works in context and provide an informative biography of the pianist. Admirers of great pianism will want this.

Stephen Greenbank