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ClassicsOnline Home » RACHMANINOV: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Moiseiwitsch, Vol. 4) (1937-1948)
By Martin Scot Kosin
By Geoffrey Norris
The Daily Telegraph (Australia)
Benno Moiseiwitsch was born in so-called cradle of Russian pianism, Odessa, in 1890. At nine he won the Anton Rubinstein prize. After being told by the Guildhall School of Music in London that they could teach him nothing, he went, at the age of fourteen, to Vienna where he studied with the great Leschetizky, to be told that he could play better with his feet. Benno was undeterred and spent nearly two years in Vienna perfecting his art with the great teacher. His British début was in Reading in 1908 and his international career took him to every corner of the world. In 1937 he became a British citizen and in 1946 was awarded the C.B.E. (Commander of the British Empire). He played in public until his death in London in 1963 at the age of 73.
It was at Moiseiwitschs American début in 1919 that he first met Rachmaninov who had been in the audience. It was the beginning of a life-long friendship for the two exiled Russians, only ended by the death of Rachmaninov in 1943. Rachmaninov even declared that Moiseiwitsch played some of his compositions, such as the Second Concerto, better than the composer himself. Moiseiwitschs style was less severe than Rachmaninov because he had been trained in the Leschetizky tradition with its emphasis on a beautiful sound and the use of technique to serve the music, not to display the abilities of the performer. There were, therefore, subtle differences in their performances and it is interesting to hear both the composer, and a colleague he approved of, playing the same composition.
When Moiseiwitsch took part in the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs in October 1958 he chose as one of his eight records to take to the imaginary island Rachmaninovs recording of the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini. He referred to Rachmaninov as a great friend whom I admired more than anyone as a man, as a composer and as a pianist. He had impeccable technique, taste, artistry and a wonderful personality, and if I listen to his playing it will bring back very happy moments that we used to spend together.
Rachmaninov wrote his First Piano Concerto during his student days (1890-91) when he was eighteen. Owing to the success of his infamous Prelude in C sharp minor, which he performed in London in the 1899 season, he was invited to return the following season to play his First Concerto. He knew, however, that the work needed revision but eventually decided to write a new concerto instead. This work was, of course, the famous Second Concerto written with the help of Dr Dahls hypnotic treatment for the composers creative block. It was not until 1917, directly after the Revolution in Russia, that Rachmaninov returned to Moscow and revised his First Concerto to the extent that he practically recomposed it. Although it has been the least often played of his four concertos, he continued to perform it during his lifetime. In a letter to a friend in 1937, twenty years after the revision, he says, "Today I began to practise my first concerto. Fortunately, it is not very difficult. Because the recordings of the concerto will be on sale this winter, I have promised to play it at my second concert in London on April 2nd, which I shall give with the orchestra [Philadelphia Orchestra]. Here is the programme: my first concerto, Beethovens first concerto (what heavenly music!) and my Rhapsody".
Moiseiwitsch recorded the First Concerto of Rachmaninov in 1948, five years after the composers death. As mentioned above, Rachmaninov believed that Moiseiwitsch played some of his works better than he did himself. A contemporary review concludes that "No more sympathetic interpreters could have been found than Moiseiwitsch and Sargent, who give a most fluent reading of the work actually preferable in interpretation, to my mind, to the Rachmaninov/Ormandy version of 1940, which seemed altogether too bitty for comfort; and this is no whit less efficient. Sargents accompaniment in the finale is a model of its kind; while an occasional sprinkling of wrong notes in the solo part serves as a reminder that even the best pianists are human
..and, unlike the earlier version mentioned, the fortissimos do not feel as if someone had hit one round the face with a wet sock." The single session at HMV Studio 1 Abbey Road went well and all six sides were completed in first takes. It is a superb performance, one which shows how well conductor and soloist got on together; when Moiseiwitsch died Sargent wrote, "I shall ever be indebted to Moiseiwitsch for his great kindness to me in my youth when he voluntarily undertook to teach me the pianoforte, and ever since refused to receive any payment. He taught by example at the lessons we sat side by side at two pianos and played together. He spoke seldom but on one occasion I dared to ask how he practised a certain strongly rhythmic passage of Schumann. He replied, "I bite my lips till they bleed". This comment shows Moiseiwitschs sense of humour no doubt he delivered the remark with his usual deadpan expression - and also shows that he did give lessons to a few people although he found teaching definitely more exhausting than giving a recital.
The Second Concerto, recorded eleven years earlier, posed a few more problems. Moiseiwitsch had not been in the recording studio for seven years; the critic James Agate observed the session. "To the HMV studios to hear and watch Moiseiwitsch record the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2. The London Philharmonic Orchestra with a young German called Goehr conducting. The concerto runs to eight sides, each of which was rehearsed three or four times before it was recorded. Sometimes the conductor stopped them in the middle of a recording. They did the fugato in the last movement six times before fiddles and piano could get together. Good fun to watch. Benno in his shirt-sleeves, the conductor in a sweater, and everybody smoking, the double-basses indulging in pipes and wearing bowler hats." They all had to return to the studio three weeks later to re-record the first side.
A year later in December 1938 Moiseiwitsch recorded the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini with Basil Cameron. It was written in 1934 and was Rachmaninovs last work for piano and orchestra. Again, it is a splendid performance that is in no way inferior to Rachmaninovs own recording made a few years earlier. The composers recordings were issued on HMVs prestigious Red Label whilst Moiseiwitschs were issued on HMVs less expensive Plum Label. By the mid-1930s Moiseiwitsch was very much part of British musical life and HMV in London recorded these works as an alternative version to those of Rachmaninov predominantly for the home market. They are superlative performances that document Moiseiwitschs pianism, career and the love of his compatriot, Rachmaninov.
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RACHMANINOV: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Moiseiw...