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ClassicsOnline Home » RACHMANINOV, Sergei: Piano Solo Recordings, Vol. 2 - Victor Recordings (1925-1942)
Rachmaninov’s reputation as a composer has waxed and waned over the years, but as a pianist he remains renowned, not least among other pianists, as one of the greatest. His perfect technique, utter clarity and discipline, and supreme musicianship shine undiminished through even his earliest recordings. Ever the perfectionist, he would often set down multiple takes of even the shortest pieces (no fewer than 22 of Mendelssohn’s Spinning Song, for instance), carefully choosing only the best for release. His account of a selection of Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor WoO 80 effortlessly negotiates every nuance, from utmost delicacy to thunderous virtuosity, while his affinity for the Romantics is self-evident.
Great Pianists: Sergey Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
Solo Piano Recordings Volume 2 • Beethoven • Mendelssohn • Liszt • Schubert
Sergey Rachmaninov was born in Novgorod, Russia in 1873. After studies with a few local teachers, Rachmaninov’s cousin, Alexander Siloti (1863–1945), arranged for him to go to the Moscow Conservatory to study with Nikolai Zverev, a renowned disciplinarian. In fact, Rachmaninov and two other boys lived with Zverev under a strict régime of rigorous practice. In this environment, however, the young Rachmaninov met and heard the greatest musicians of the time including Anton Rubinstein, Anton Arensky, Sergey Taneyev and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. At the age of fifteen, Rachmaninov began piano studies with Siloti, and also took harmony with Arensky and counterpoint with Taneyev. In 1891 Siloti resigned from the Moscow Conservatory, and rather than have a new teacher for his final year, Rachmaninov was allowed to take his final piano exams a year early.
The 1890s were spent in composition and conducting and it was in November 1901 that Rachmaninov gave the first performance of his famous Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. He made his American début in 1909 playing his newly written Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30. The years up to World War I were taken up with touring, performing and composing, and in 1914 Rachmaninov toured southern Russia with Serge Koussevitzky giving concerts for the war effort. At the end of 1917, however, Rachmaninov received an invitation to perform in Stockholm and he took his wife and two daughters with him, never to return to his homeland. Having left all his possessions in Russia, he decided at the age of 45 that he would have to start a new life and support his family by performing on the piano. Although he had hated his previous experience of America, he decided that his best chances of success were in the New World. In four months at the end of 1918 he gave forty concerts there and within the next three years had bought a house in New York and signed a contract with Victor Records. For the next 25 years of his life he toured America each year for six months, performed in Europe for one month, and spent five months composing and resting, spending winters in New York and summers in Europe. Rachmaninov was the first twentieth century composer of note to record all of his piano concertos and far from these recordings being left as a blue print for future performers, the trend and style when presenting these works gradually became more romantic and indulgent. This was due in part to the Hollywood connotations of his Second Piano Concerto which was used in the British film Brief Encounter. As the decades rolled on, performances and recordings of these concertos gathered more and more varnish until recently when they were recorded by Stephen Hough in a style far closer to Rachmaninov’s own
Rachmaninov’s reputation as a composer waxed and waned over the twentieth century. Popular during his lifetime, ten years after his death his music was described thus in the Grove Dictionary of Music: ‘The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninov’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favour.’ With the musically informed public Rachmaninov’s music has always been popular. Granted, for many years this popularity was founded on a few works only—particularly the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, and the Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, his Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, was taken up by many pianists, receiving as many, if not more, performances today than its popular sibling.
As a pianist, though, Rachmaninov is far less familiar to the general public. For a survey carried out in 2010 by BBC Music Magazine it was decided not to ask the general public, but ‘one hundred of today’s leading concert pianists to name the finest players of the recorded era’. With only three votes allowed from each, the overwhelming majority voted for Rachmaninov over the other greats of the Golden Era—Hofmann, Lhevinne, Godowsky, Friedman, Cortot, and the titans of the next generation such as Horowitz, Rubinstein and Richter. Is the conclusion to be drawn from this that Rachmaninov is a pianist’s pianist—a term often levelled at Leopold Godowsky? Probably not exclusively, although his combination of perfect technique, utter clarity and supreme musicianship obviously appeals to pianists as does his style of composition.
When he decided that he would have to earn his living as a pianist, rather than solely as a composer, Rachmaninov prepared a wide range of repertoire from Bach and Handel through Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn to Liszt, Tchaikovsky and other Russians, including his contemporary and fellow Moscow Conservatory student Alexander Scriabin. Of course, audiences expected to hear him play his own compositions.
This second volume of Rachmaninov’s recordings includes works by the composers mentioned above and many of these are early electrical recordings. Columbia had already been experimenting with the Western Electric process when they recorded pianist Mischa Levitzki in November 1924 (Naxos 8.110688) and it was during the middle of March 1925 that Victor installed the new equipment at their studio in Camden, New Jersey. Within a month Rachmaninov was there to make his first electrical recordings even though they would not be released for more than eighteen months to allow time for the public to buy new electrical phonographs on which to play the discs. On the 13 and 14 April 1925 he recorded a number of sides including excerpts from the Beethoven Variations in C minor, WoO 80, and then returned a month later on 14 May for retakes. For the Mozart and Gluck titles recorded at this session Rachmaninov used a Steinway model D piano, number 194597, an instrument that had been manufactured in 1918. Three more sessions took place in December 1925, producing one of Rachmaninov’s most impressive recordings, Liszt’s Concert Etude, Gnomenreigen. He had recorded two takes of this technically demanding work on 14 December and was satisfied with the third made two days later.
Rachmaninov was a perfectionist, recording take after take until he was satisfied. For his disc of Mendelssohn’s ‘Spinning Song’ takes 12–17 were made on 11 April 1928 and takes 18–22 on the 25 April. He chose take 21 for issue (although the earliest takes were made by the acoustic process and from these take 2 recorded in 1920 was previously issued). Also on the 11 April 1928 Rachmaninov recorded Tchaikovsky’s November from The Seasons, Op.37b, the same day that Josef Lhevinne made his celebrated recording of the Blue Danube Waltz by Schultz-Evler. Rachmaninov only recorded one work by Scriabin, and this was never issued on 78 rpm disc. Ever the perfectionist, he demanded that all rejected sides were destroyed, but this Scriabin Prelude was not, so must have been approved. He made two takes of it at a session that also included five takes of his arrangement of Flight of the Bumble Bee.
Sessions in December 1935 and January 1936 produced the Handel and Borodin tracks heard here and it is evident that even in such disparate styles Rachmaninov’s clarity and control of the structure, sound, colour, and tone is always paramount. Redolent of the recording Horowitz made at the end of his life, the Schubert-Liszt Ständchen was recorded in 1942, a year before Rachmaninov died.
© 2010 Jonathan Summers
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