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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor (1901) - two versions, 1929 and 1942 with originally issued and substitute takes
Sergei Rachmaninov (piano)/Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. April 1929, Academy of Music, Philadelphia

This requires some background. What we have here is a standard transfer of the 1929 Rachmaninov/Stokowski recording of the former’s C minor concert and so far, so predictable. However, it comes with the addition of the substitute takes published when Victor drew on saved alternative takes (Americans prefer the word ‘alternate’) in its substitutions in 1942, which were to last for the rest of the 78 era. Thus, we have two ‘different’ versions and in fact in the case of the ninth 78 side, which forms the central panel of the finale, we have all three takes as it’s included as an appendix. It was published in 1940 and replaced in 1942. So, what began with seeming simplicity has rapidly become rather more complicated.

The original takes for the 1929 recording were selected by Rachmaninov himself. In some cases, he had three takes from which to choose, in others just two. By 1942 wear on the original metals meant replacing sides but this set is very unusual, indeed unique, in the volume of replacement sides: only one side was retained, the opening section of the slow movement and only because the only alternative take had been destroyed. Everything else derives from an alternative take. These alternative takes formed the basis of all subsequent RCA releases up to the 1987 RCA CD edition.

One wouldn’t expect radical reinterpretation in the context of these alternative takes. Instead it’s rather fascinating, if perhaps exhausting, to switch between the originally released 1929 sides and those issued in 1942 for signs of minuscule changes in nuance and rubato. Perhaps the 1942 opening side, a second take, is fractionally more ‘sculpted’ than the third take selected by the composer in 1929. Perhaps, too, the second take of the central section of the movement – used in 1942 – is a touch more capricious and free than the straighter first take that survives in the 1929 set. Maybe the composer was being more cautious to ensure a successful take and, knowing that he had, relaxed.

These are the kinds of interpretative fun and games to be had from a set like this but on a more serious, archival and scholarly note, the preservation of originally published takes alongside substitute takes offers a valuable perspective on the recording process. Mark Obert-Thorn’s producer’s note, to which I am indebted for detail, sets the scene well and his transfers are excellent.

Jonathan Woolf

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