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Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Elégie - A Heart in Exile
Lucy Parham (piano), Henry Goodman (narrator)
rec. 2017, Air Edel Studios London (narration) Menuhin Hall, Surrey (piano)
DEUX-ELLES DXL1178 [56:16 + 48:47]

Lucy Parham’s delightful concert series of ‘Composer Portraits’ - musical biographies of the great composers for solo piano - has already resulted in CDs covering the lives and careers of Debussy, Liszt, Chopin, and the Schumanns. Now she has added Sergei Rachmaninoff to the list. The format is as before: a 2 CD set in which biographical narration is interspersed with Parham’s performances of related solo pieces. The narration is as usual undertaken by a leading actor, this time Henry Goodman, who has often worked with Lucy Parham in the series. He deploys a Russian accent for what are first person narratives taken from the composer’s letters and reminiscences, which gives biographical immediacy. The manner is engaging and intimate, so that the great Sergei himself seems to be recalling his life for us as we listen. Then at times he seems to turn to the keyboard and play a piece which his musings have led him to recall…except of course it is Lucy Parham who is playing.

The design of the listening experience is skilfully and subtly structured. Neither narration nor music interrupts the other for very long – the longest musical item is just seven minutes – so that the alternation of music and speech has a satisfying rhythm of its own. All the key moments of Rachmaninoff’s eventful life are here, including his meetings with Tolstoy and Chekov, but room is found also for his personal views, such as his love of Chopin and his dislike of modernism, as well as the burden of exile and his melancholic sense of mortality. As the title suggests, the feeling is predominantly elegiac, but the portrait is still rounded enough to include an example of Rachmaninoff’s unexpected humour. When Kreisler lost his place in a duo recital they were giving, he whispered “Sergei, where are we?” Without looking up from the keyboard Rachmaninov replied, “Carnegie Hall”.

The selection of musical items is necessarily focussed on the shorter works – no room here for the two great sonatas of course, but four of the six Moments musicaux Op.16 are included. Those are from 1896, and since there are just three items from the later sets of Études-tableaux and Préludes, the selection is weighted more towards the earlier work (full listing below). But it is the mood of each piece that matters and how well that mood fits within the narrative sequence, and in that her judgement is unerring. Since the composer was also a great performer, there is room for one piece each from Tchaikovsky, Scriabin and Chopin, while Rachmaninoff the arranger is represented by The Star-Spangled Banner and Kreisler’s Liebesleid. Lucy Parham’s playing is completely persuasive in all of these, but she sounds particularly attuned to Rachmaninoff’s idiom, which might well have been enhanced by all those hours immersed in his correspondence and other biographical sources. You might prefer some other favourite version of a piece, but comparisons are beside the point, given the excellence of this playing, and the success of the concept and its execution.

Lucy Parham also contributes a useful booklet note, and even gets a credit as one of two producers for the narration passages. These are ideally integrated sonically, despite being recorded at a separate date and location, so that the transition from speech to solo piano is always smooth, never suggesting we have leapt disconcertingly from drawing room to concert hall. The piano sound itself is well focussed in a good acoustic space. The whole production seems to have been done with care, and perhaps benefits from the considerable experience now gained in putting these performances initially designed for a live concert audience into a medium for a domestic setting. Where next for Lucy Parham’s ‘Composer Portrait’ series? Perhaps she will stay in Russia and give us Scriabin, whose intriguing story is less familiar than those covered so far, but who is like them in that his stature is much reduced if you take away his output for solo piano – much of which consists of quite short pieces. And her playing of his Etude in C Sharp Minor here is especially beguiling. But whomever she turns the spotlight on next, it will be worth hearing; meantime, we have this superb evocation of the life and music of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Roy Westbrook

CD 1
Dear Sergei… [2:35]
Morceaux de fantaisie, Op.3: I Elégie [5:13]
Besides the fee… [3:09]
Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3: IV Polichinelle [3:46]
My father... [2:18]
Preludes, Op. 32: V. Prelude in G [3:23]
It was during my final summer... [3:51]
Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, Op. 37a: XI. Troika ' November' [3:15]
I often think... [3:37]
Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3: II. Prelude in C Sharp Minor [5:27]
That damn prelude... [5:21]
Preludes, Op. 23: VI. Prelude in E-Flat [3:37]
I must say... [4:11]
Etudes-tableaux, Op. 33: VII. Etude Tableau in E-Flat [2:06]
My experience with Anton... [1:20]
Moments musicaux, Op. 16: IV. Presto in E Minor [3:02]
CD 2
Practice... [1:36]
Chopin: Waltzes, Op. 64: II. Waltz in C Sharp Minor [3:44]
Chopin!... [1:38]
Scriabin: 8 Etudes, Op. 42: V. Etude in C Sharp Minor [3:26]
War... [2:21]
Moments musicaux, Op. 16: III. Andante cantabile in B Minor [7:01]
When I left Russia... [2:18]
Stafford Smith: The Star-Spangled Banner (arr. Rachmaninoff) [1:25]
I may live in America... [2:55]
Moments musicaux, Op. 16: V. Adagio sostenuto in D-Flat Major [3:52]
In my own compositions... [2:27]
Kreisler: Liebesleid (arr. Sergei Rachmaninoff) [5:18]
Yesterday I received a telegram... [5:20]
Moments musicaux, Op.16:VI. Maestoso in C Major [5:19]

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