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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Rachmaninov plays Rachmaninov
Piano Concerto No.1 in F# minor, Op.1 [25:08]
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18 [31:28]
Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30 [34:05]
Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor. Op.40 [24:38]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op.43 [22:50]
Sergei Rachmaninov (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (2, Rhapsody), Eugene Ormandy
rec. 1929-41
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC544 [2 CDs: 137:25]

These almost legendary recordings have been the subject of several remasterings over the years, and I myself own the Naxos issues from 1999. Interestingly, the Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer then was Mark Obert-Thorn and he has performed the same role in this latest airing by Pristine Classical.

As it happens, I owe my forty-seven years of interest in classical recordings to a chance encounter with an LP of Rachmaninov’s C minor concerto. Until then, music of any sort had held only marginal attraction for me, and so I have always felt gratitude to the great Russian for his music. As the years have gone by, I have been pleased to note that his reputation as a composer has continually increased, and of course, his reputation as a pianist has long been second to none.

Many have been the reviews of the different incarnations of the concertos and solo piano works, and many are the pianists who speak in awe of the pianism, and so I am not going to try to comment again on the performances. Instead I am just going to do a brief comparison of the changes – hopefully improvements – in the recordings. I might as well say that I am not particularly attracted to ‘historical’ recordings, finding the restricted frequency range, attenuated dynamics and crackly backgrounds unenticing, and apart from the Rachmaninov discs, I don’t possess any other antique recordings.

The earliest recording here is that of the second concerto, which was set down in 1929, superceding an acoustic effort from 1923. I listened to the Naxos CD first, and then, the newcomer. There is significant hiss present in both recordings, but in the Naxos, it tends to have a slight periodicity which is reduced now. However, the main improvement is game-changing: the piano tone is much more full-bodied, and when the Philadelphia strings enter, they sound so much fuller with markedly less attenuation, that I almost sat up in disbelief. The brass rasp, rather than gasp (permit me a little hyperbole) and the whole thing sounds better balanced. I find it difficult to believe that I am listening to a recording made ninety years ago.

The next recording made was that of the Paganini Rhapsody, dating from 1934 and it was set down in a different studio than all the others. Listening to the Naxos disc, its level of hiss is markedly less than is present on their issue of the C minor concerto. The Pristine Audio version is less hissy again, although the level does seem to vary somewhat across the performance. The most marked improvement over the Naxos is in the piano tone; there, at times, it has a curiously ‘fuzzy’ edge, and whilst that aspect has not been totally eradicated in the new issue, it is certainly less marked. The orchestra is much better defined and full in its impact. Consider the prominent part for harp in the XI variation – it can be better heard in the new transfer.

The third concerto is next up, being recorded in winter 1939 and 1940. Ormandy conducts now, whereas the previous two pieces had Stokowski at the helm. The Naxos transfer has immediately noticeable surface noise; a continuous rustle. This noise is dramatically reduced in the new issue. In addition, the piano tone is firmer and much better defined, and the orchestral sound is transformed. The climax of the first movement has greater clarity and impact, a quite remarkable transformation which is splendidly evidenced by the piano tone in the great cadenza. The orchestra sounds magnificent in the opening section of the low movement.

The first concerto was recorded on the same days as the third, and I find that the recording as present on Naxos is rather better than that afforded to the third. Both the orchestra and piano have better presence. Surface rustle and very slight crackle are again evident. On playing the Pristine Audio version, the revitalisation of the sound is astonishing. I can, at times, almost believe that I’m listening to a recording made at a much later date – the sound leaps from the speakers, surface noise is reduced to a remarkable degree, and the orchestra is particularly full bodied. Mr.Obert-Thorn remarks that the original recordings were particularly bass-deficient, and that he has tried to coax as much bass as possible from the originals to present us with a realistic sound picture. He has succeeded.

The fourth concerto was the last to be recorded in December 1941. Again, there is surface rustle on the Naxos, which I find the more noticeable for being present to varying levels. However, the sound quality is an improvement over the first concerto, although the piano tone occasionally splinters. I love this piece, the Ugly Duckling of the four, for in it Rachmaninov takes the late romantic form and presents it to us as seen through a transforming prism of modernism, yet it is still magically Rachmaninovian in every way. Again, Mr. Obert-Thorn has worked his magic – the rustling has been reduced and things sound generally fuller and better defined. As in the other recordings, the occasional splinters of piano tone can still be heard, but the incidence and/or intensity is reduced. How I enjoy the frenetic climb to the first movement climax, it’s glorious arrival, and the subsequent almost curt dismissal, where what would have been an extended wallow in an earlier work, is here replaced by a brusque interruption, followed by a lyrical winding down.

It must be obvious that I am deeply impressed and often astonished by what I have heard here, and I can say no more than I fervently recommend this truly remarkable reincarnation of performances by Rachmaninov, Stokowski, Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The packaging is a ‘twofer’ with brief but adequate notes by Mr. Obert-Thorn detailing the circumstances of the original recordings, and comments on the quality (or lack thereof) of the original recordings. The precise dates of the original recordings are not given, and I have obtained them from Pristine Classical’s website, which also contains the same short notes by Mr. Obert-Thorn.

I really wonder what we will be hearing when these recordings are digitally re-processed again in another twenty years’ time. I probably won’t be around to comment, but perhaps techniques will have matured to the point where they can replace or modify the original recorded tone of each instrument with what it would have actually sounded like in that acoustic all those years ago. Such techniques would have to be able to analyse a complex mesh of sound to separate out each instrumental strand, and that, I have no doubt, would be very difficult indeed.

After all this, I will finish by saying that my two Naxos CD’s are destined for the local charity shop.

Jim Westhead
Recording details
10 and 13 April 1929, Academy of Music, Philadelphia (2)
4 December 1939 and 24 February 1940, Academy of Music, Philadelphia (1, 3)
20 December 1941, Academy of Music, Philadelphia (4)
24 December 1934, Church Studio No.2, Camden, New Jersey (rhapsody)

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