Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Complete Preludes
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2 [3:58]
Preludes, Op. 23 [33:28]
Preludes, Op. 32 [39:04]
Moura Lympany (piano)
rec. 1941-42, Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London. Mono
DECCA ELOQUENCE 482 6266 [76:42]
As soon as I saw this, I knew I had to get to hear it. Yes, there’s a good selection of recordings of Rachmaninov’s complete Preludes for the Piano out there already, from the likes of Howard Shelley, Steven Osborne, Artur Pizzaro, Vladimir Ashkenazy and others – and all using modern technology where the sound quality is largely as good as it gets. But On the other hand, this reissue on the Eloquence label represents the first-ever recording of the Preludes, and now released on CD for the first time. The original recordings were made by Decca in sessions as ordered above, and then issued month by month on separate 78 rpm records, two preludes per disc. Lympany, in fact went on to make two further recordings of the works – in 1951, reissued by Decca in 2004, and again in 1993, for Erato, when the pianist was in her late seventies.
In the present set, Andrew Halifax of King’s Sound Archives, King’s College, London, has done an outstanding job as far as both transfer and remastering go, even if, of course, there is currently no way possible to avoid the fact that these were originally recorded in one take, and even before WW2 had run its course. If there was a slight mistake of any kind, the prelude would have to be recorded again from scratch, and apparently there were times where nothing was considered good enough to preserve, making the whole process a real tribute to any artist’s sheer staying powers, to produce something fresh each and every time, rather than to have the luxury of a tweak here or there as it easily possible with digital recording methods today.
My personal interest started many years ago. Moura Lympany was born in Saltash, Cornwall, just across the River Tamar from Plymouth, Devon. She was, in fact, born Mary Gertrude Johnstone, and was firstly taught by her mother, before being sent to a convent school in Belgium, followed by further study initially at Liège, and then at London’s Royal Academy of Music, having gained a scholarship there. She auditioned with conductor Basil Cameron, with whom she made her debut in 1929, at the tender age of twelve, in Mendelssohn’s G minor Concerto, the only concerto she had memorised up to then. Cameron suggested that she adopt a stage name for the concert and a Russian diminutive of the name Mary, Moura, along with an old spelling of her mother's maiden name, Limpenny, were chosen, and her eminent career and new persona took off virtually from then.
Always conscious of her local roots – in fact Saltash still has a charming and movingly candid biography of Lympany on its website – she returned to the South West on more than one occasion to give recitals in Plymouth Guildhall, and where her playing and charming demeanour made such a tremendous impression on a young school boy with musical aspirations. When I later began my own studies in London, my teacher was another of England’s highly-acclaimed concert pianists, Cyril Smith who had tragically lost the use of his left arm as a result of a stroke, and who subsequently concentrated on combining teaching with playing in a highly-successful piano-three-hand ensemble with his second wife, Phyllis Sellick.
Both Smith and Lympany had had one teacher in common – Tobias Matthay – who, in 1903, after a decade of observation, analysis and experimentation, produced The Art of Touch, where he propounded his main teaching principle that piano touch and arm movement were absolutely vital elements in piano playing, and that technique should never be divorced from musical values, something so immediately apparent in Lympany’s playing, and in that of other celebrated pianists from the same school – York Bowen, Myra Hess, and Clifford Curzon, for example.
True, some of Lympany’s later recordings of the Preludes have greater depth, others are approached in perhaps even more perceptive ways, and, of course, the piano sound and unavoidable yet overall well-managed surface noise play their own respective parts. This reissue is still an absolute Classic, albeit in an overtly Romantic world. Rather like a TV series in three generations, it’s always possible to start viewing at the start of the second, or even the third, relying on a brief resume of earlier episodes and series to get you up to speed. But so often, you will miss essential character traits, or subtle nuances that will account for unexpected behaviour later on, and so it is with Lympany’s recordings of the Rachmaninov Preludes. Not only does the present 1941-42 set say a lot about the pianist herself, in addition they shed a great deal of light on her performance style and interpretative insights to, in a truly unique manner.
True it would be so easy to dismiss her performance here of, say, the immensely impressive B flat Prelude, No 2 in the Op. 23 set. It is certainly not unblemished, and while it still thrills, there is no doubt that it would have been afforded another take in the overall scheme of things. But there are still great performances too, and not only of the more lyrically-inclined examples like the G major Prelude of Op. 32, but also the much-loved G minor Prelude from Op. 23, both in its march-like opening, and in the gloriously lyrical central section.
Given the CD’s competitive pricing, and the absorbing and highly-informative liner notes from American piano historian Stephen Siek, it should be sine qua non for aficionados of Romantic piano music, especially by this important composer, all those with an interest in the origins and development of British pianism, or simply those for whom the playing of Dame Moura Lympany has special import – so nicely summed up by Gramophone Magazine, December 1943’s comment at the time: ‘Miss Lympany’s performance is a remarkable achievement for which lovers of piano music are deep in her debt.’
In 1948 Ambrose Coviello – a professor at the Royal Academy of Music, and who also taught Lympany – wrote a book called What Matthay Meant – clearly by its title its very purpose was self-evident. Suffice it to say, though, that Lympany’s playing elucidates it even more succinctly, and in a way that is immensely more pleasurable, too.
Should you still need any further convincing, then just start at end and listen to the masterly way in which she despatches the final Prelude in D flat from the Op. 32 set, and especially its grandiose climax – a piece which is generally considered a perfect summation of all the music that has gone before, and here a fitting testament to Moura Lympany’s epic achievement as well.
Philip R Buttall
29 May 1941 (Op. 3 No. 2, Op. 23 Nos. 1, 3, 4 & 10), 25 September (Op. 23 Nos 2, 7 & 8, Op. 32 Nos. 1, 2 & 6), 12 November (Op. 23 No. 5), 20 February 1942 (Op. 23 Nos. 6 & 9, Op. 32 Nos 11 & 12), 4 June (Op. 32 Nos. 3, 5, 7 & 10), 26 August (Op. 32 Nos. 4, 8, 9 & 13)