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Jonathan Woolf
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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Complete Solo Piano Works Live
Sergio Fiorentino (piano)
RHINE CLASSICS RH-006 [6 CDs: 429 mins]

Over the course of four recitals during September 1987, Sergio Fiorentino performed Rachmaninov’s complete solo piano works. Broadcast live by Italian RAI, Radio 3, the master tapes were retained by Fiorentino, from whose collection they have now been made available in splendid-sounding restorations. They occupy six CDs and are housed in Rhine’s customary sturdy boxes.

In his section of the booklet notes Gianni Cesarini, music critic for the Neapolitan newspaper ‘Il Mattino’,who had been sent to mediate between the broadcaster and the pianist, relates that after initially rebuffing the suggestion, Fiorentino agreed, even going so far as to undertake performances over four consecutive days. But RAI had elected for one recital per week and the programmes are reprinted in the generously illustrated booklet so that one can note how they differ from the track order. The recitals were mixed, not running chronologically, culminating in the final concert that presented both sonatas and the Chopin variations in a great sweeping envoi. Whereas the discs are largely chronological by opus number though the third disc, of pieces without opus number and transcriptions, bisects the chronology. Rhine confine both sonatas and both sets of variations (Chopin and Corelli) to the final two discs where they also offer some particularly exciting bonuses, of which more later.

The richness of his chording and the romantic lyricism of his performances, added to individual elements in his phrasing, are the hallmarks of his playing. Then there is the approach to structure and tempo. Take the sonatas, for example. In October 1995 he recorded these in Siemensvilla in Berlin and the perspective in the first sonata is very different. In the live Naples performance the impression is altogether more powerful and leonine, the sense of drama the more vivid. In each of the three movements the tempo is faster and the phrasing more dramatic in Naples; the Berlin reading is inspired in different ways, its more measured grandeur offering another insight into the performer’s art. If pressed I would take Fiorentino on the wing in Naples. There’s less in it when it comes to the Second Sonata, heard in the 1931 version, but again little details favour Naples over Berlin in the October 1994 version.

The Op.3 set marries phrasal personalisation with tonal amplitude, poetic intensity with virtuosic élan, the dance patterned Op. 10 morceaux droll and full of warmth. There’s a brilliantly stormy Allegro from Op.16, a passionate Presto and a securely focused Chopinesque Adagio sostenuto. The two sets of Preludes offer a kaleidoscope of pleasure, whether march-driven or pellucid. If I had to single just one piece from the Opp 23 and 32 sets I would point to the coruscatingly dispatched Op.32/4. Sensibly both sets occupy a single disc as do the two sets of Etudes-tableaux, Opp.33 and 39. Here one can appreciate ever more fully the sense of balance, tonal refinement and musical judgement to be savoured in Fiorentino’s Rachmaninov performances. They offer richly sonorous readings and, in the case of the variations, a vista into his sense of architectural purpose allied to tonal breadth and characterisation. The Chopin variations have considerable clarity as well as sizeable beauty and bravura. The more compact - but more daunting - demands of the Corelli finds a similar clarity and nobility but also a sense of melancholy too.

The youthful works, the Morceaux of 1887 and the Nocturnes of 1887-88, aren’t disdained; they’re treated with care but not reverence and Fiorentino takes especial care over the voicings in these three Nocturnes. His own Vocalise transcription is heard twice in the box - from the cycle, where it’s played with rapt beauty and from a live Naples performance from two years later, a delightful bonus. His handwritten manuscript is reproduced in the booklet, showing he wrote the transcription in August 1962, bracketing the date with that of January 1989. As another bonus, the Concerto No.1 is also here, from a 1958 broadcast with the RAI Rome, whose strings play with romantic fervour, under Carolo Franci and Fiorentino’s digital armoury is on extremely fine form, though the mono sound is not always perfectly defined. The most recent performance comes from 1991 where Fedoseyev directs the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in the Paganini Rhapsody. The conductor brings out some seldom encountered lines and colours, though never needlessly, preferring a watching approach. Fiorentino is the eloquent soloist, noble, stoic and unflinching; not for him a whimsical deadpan ending. He is more emphatic; more Chaplin than Keaton.

The booklet contains Cesarini’s article, a four-page interview between him and Fiorentino, a two-page biography by Keith Goodman, photographic reproductions, some in colour, and those programmes. This excellent package brings together a superbly realised cycle from a romantic lion of the keyboard.

Jonathan Woolf

Sergei Rachmaninov
CD1 | 74:19
[1]-[5] Morceaux de fantaisie (5), Op.3 (1892)
recorded: 11 September 1987
[6]-[12] Morceaux de salon (7), Op.10 (1894)
recorded: 23 September 1987
[13]-[18] Moments musicaux (6), Op.16 (1896)
recorded: 17 September 1987

CD2 | 65:32
[1]-[10] Preludes (10), Op.23 (1903)
[11]-[23] Preludes (13), Op.32 (1910)
recorded: 11 September 1987

CD3 | 77:48
[1]-[4] Morceaux (4) (1887)
[5]-[7] Nocturnes (3) (1887/88)
[8]  Morceau (1884) Moderato, in D minor
[9]  Morceau de fantaisie (1899) “Delmo”, in G minor
[10]  Fragments (1917) Andante semplice, in A-flat major
[11]  Oriental Sketch (1917) Non allegro, in B-flat major
Transcriptions & Paraphrases:
[12]  Polka de W.R. (1911) Lachtäubchen (Scherz-polka) Op.303 | F.Behr
[13]-[15] Suite (1933/34) Violin solo Partita No.3 in E major, BWV 1006 | Bach
[16]  Menuet (1903; rev. 1922) L’Arlésienne, Suite No.1 | Bizet
[17]  Wohin? (1925) Die schöne Müllerin, D.795, Lied No.2 | Schubert
[18]  Hopak (1923/24) Sorochinsky Fair: Gopak | Mussorgsky
[19]  Lullaby (1941) Romance, Op.16/1 | Tchaikovsky
[20]  Flight of the Bumble-Bee (1929) Tale of Tsar Saltan | Rimsky-Korsakov
[21]  Daisies (1922; rev. 1940) Composer’s transcription from Song, Op.38/3
[22]  Lilacs (1913/14) Composer’s transcription from Song, Op.21/5
[23]  Scherzo (1933) A Midsummer Night’s Dream | Mendelssohn
[24]  Liebesleid (1921) Love’s Sorrow (Alt-Wiener Tanzweisen 2.) | Kreisler
[25]  Liebesfreud (1925) Love’s Joy (Alt-Wiener Tanzweisen 1.) | Kreisler
[26]  Vocalise, Op.34 No.14 | S.Fiorentino piano transcription (1962)
recorded: 17 September 1987

CD4 | 60:05
[1-[8] Etudes-tableaux (8), Op.33 (1911)
[9]-[17]  Etudes-tableaux (9), Op.39 (1916)
recorded: 23 September 1987

CD5 | 79:32
[1]-[3] Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor, Op.28 (1908)
[4]-[6] Piano Sonata No.2 in B-flat minor, Op.36 (2ndversion, 1931)
recorded: 29 September 1987

[7]-[9]   Piano Concerto No.1 in F-sharp minor, Op.1 (final version, 1919)
OS di Roma della RAI | Carlo Franci
recorded: live | Auditorium RAI Foro Italico, Roma | 27 September 1958

CD6 | 72:20
[1] Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op.22 (1902/03)
recorded: 29 September 1987
[2] Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op.42 (1931)
recorded: 23 September 1987

[3]   Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, in A minor, Op.43 (1934)
O Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia | Vladimir Fedoseyev
recorded: live | Auditorium di Via Conciliazione, Roma | 21 December 1991
[4]   Vocalise, Op.34 No.14 / S.Fiorentino piano transcription (1989)
recorded: live | Teatro Bellini, Napoli | 20 February 1989

recorded (except BONUS): live | Auditorium Domenico Scarlatti RAI, Napoli
source: copy of the master tapes owned by Sergio Fiorentino
the 4 concerts were broadcast live by Italian RAI Radio3

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