Thursday, 2 May 2013

Review: Rachmaninoff - Complete Recordings - RCA (10 CDs)

Historically and artistically invaluable recordings

One of the many wonderful things about this box-set is that it includes all recordings of Sergei Rachmaninoff that have survived – save all piano rolls which are generally considered to be much less reliable a source even than the most primitive acoustic or electrical recordings. Thus we can really appreciate Rachmaninoff in at least three different directions: composer, pianist and conductor; and if the first is generally recognized nowadays, the other two aspects of his genius are somewhat neglected. Moreover, Rachmaninoff the pianist appears here in three very different roles: as a soloist in his own piano concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody (discs 1 and 2), accompanying Fritz Kreisler, no less, in sonatas by Grieg, Schubert and Beethoven (disc 4), and playing a highly selective repertoire for solo piano ranging from Bach to Debussy (almost everything on discs 5 to 10). As a special bonus, we get Rachmaninoff as a conductor (disc 3) in his own Third Symphony, the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead and the orchestral version of his famous Vocalise.

It is, of course, Rachmaninoff as a solo pianist and a soloist who is of paramount importance here. The very thought that we are able to listen to the playing of one of the greatest piano composers is difficult to assimilate and, for better or for worse, is bound to colour our perception of his recordings. After all, Rachmaninoff was the last in a most distinguished line of composer-pianists which started with Mozart and passed through Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt. Sadly (or not?), all of them died before even the most primitive recording equipment was invented. Considering the fact that Rachmaninoff also made a number of transcriptions for solo piano of music by various composers, he easily emerges as a towering figure of Lisztian versatility, if necessarily on a much smaller scale. We should be deeply thankful that part of Rachmaninoff's life coincided with the invention of the earliest recording devices.

Now, by modern standards Rachmaninoff's playing can only be described as highly idiosyncratic, with extreme tempo fluctuations and enormous sound. If today some brave young soul dares to play Chopin's Third Ballade or Second Sonata at a competition even remotely in the manner of Rachmaninoff, I am pretty sure he would be ostracized and any chances even of modest career would vanish into thin air. The first and most obvious thing about Rachmaninoff's playing is the very fast tempi he usually employs and his almost inhuman control over the keyboard. Occasionally, it must be admitted, this is at the expense of the music, but far more often it is indeed a most refreshing exception among the digital dullness that reigns supreme today. On second hearing, I am astonished by the unprecedented degree of freedom and the variety of colours. To be sure, this is something you have absolutely no chance to encounter in a modern concert hall.

Rachmaninoff is generally regarded as a conservative and intellectual pianist, a puritan in the best sense of the word, and I daresay he is less impulsive than some of his illustrious contemporaries (such as Hofmann and Paderewski, for instance) but, being born as early as 1873 (30 years before Horowitz!), he certainly belonged to the grand nineteenth-century Romantic tradition of piano playing whose chief object was to communicate the emotional content of the music. Today pianists ''realise composer's intentions'', ''build architectural designs''', etc., etc. – until they all manage to sound pretty much the same, like MIDI files. That's why we are fortunate to have these recordings of Rachmaninoff – despite the sound.

Since these are all historical recordings, the issue of sound quality looms large. Of course it has nothing to do with the modern digital wonders, but let me repeat again what many have said and what should be obvious to anybody but a hopeless digital addict: Rachmaninoff's artistry completely transcends whatever sonic shortcomings his recordings may have. The inferior sound is like the cuts in many of the works on these recordings: a product of its time that has nothing to do with the artist. Besides, it is essential to realize that the recordings on these 10 CDs were made in the span of 23 years (1919-1942), a period in which the quality of sound recording improved quite a bit.

Rachmaninoff's earliest recordings were acoustical ones (that is before the microphone era) made in 1919 for Edison and, unbelievable as it may seem, on an upright piano; on the top of all that, the recording engineer, if he may be called thus, placed the recording horns a bit too far from the piano. Small wonder that these recordings have the most dismal sound in the whole box set: very loud background noise, highly artificial and often distorted piano tone. They occupy the last 8 tracks on CD 10 and, unfortunately, include pieces which Rachmaninoff never re-recorded later (discounting piano rolls!), such as his own Barcarolle (Op. 10 No. 3), an absolutely delicious rendition of Chopin's ''Two-Four'' waltz (Op. 42), a most unusual first movement of Mozart's Sonata K. 331 and a simply mind-blowing recording of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Considering the stupefying circumstances under which these recordings were made, the sound is actually quite fine. Sure, it will give you no idea how Rachmaninoff must have sounded in the concert hall, but there is not a single piece which is unlistenable, provided of course that you don't suffer from audiophilia, and you are not likely to mistake Rachmaninoff's interpretations with any others. The Hungarian Rhapsody is particularly well recorded indeed, and it is a performance of towering virtuosity that may well make dizzy Cziffra himself, especially Rachmaninoff's dazzling cadenza.

(By the way, there is exactly one piece in this box-set which is completely unlistenable due to the extremely poor sound. This is ''Polka Italienne'' which is actually a private recording made about 1938 of Rachmaninoff playing four hands with his wife, Natalie.)

In 1920 Rachmaninoff left Edison for Victor (later RCA Victor) with whom he continued to record for more than 20 years. Until 1925 he made a good many acoustical recordings which occupy the rest of CD 10 (tracks 1-9) and the whole CD 9. Among them, too, there are many gems that Rachmaninoff never made electrical recordings of later. Among the highlights are his own transcription of Kreisler's ''Liebesleid'' (1921), a surprisingly disappointing G minor prelude (Op. 23 No. 5, bit of a ''lowlight'' this one), but beautifully shaped versions of Op. 32 Nos. 5 and 12, Moszkowski's ''La jongleuse'', and a number of pieces by Chopin. After his own works, Rachmaninoff recorded most often Chopin. Only between 1920 and 1923 he committed on disc 6 waltzes, 1 mazurka, 1 nocturne and the Third Scherzo. Too bad that the last one of these should have been in a rather poor acoustical sound. The performance is astounding, with super-fast octaves that blow Argerich away and very slow tempo for the second subject that makes it sound extremely poignant.

One last and very important note about those acoustical recordings for RCA Victor made between 1920 and 1924. They are far superior to the Edison ones from 1919 because, unlike them, they were made using Steinway concert grand and two horns for recording the treble and the bass sections of the piano.

After 1925 all recordings Rachmaninoff made (again except any piano rolls) were electrical and these, of course, are greatly superior to the acoustical ones in terms of clarity and depth. Certainly, there still is tape hiss, which can be said, overall, to diminish slightly but steadily with the passing years. Rachmaninoff's last recordings, made in 1939-42, are not the vintage mono RCA gave Horowitz a decade later, but they do not require much imagination from the listener in order to imagine why Rachmaninoff was the idol of many other great but vastly different pianists, such as Bolet and Horowitz for instance, and why such a cool customer as Harold Schonberg used to rave about his abilities at the keyboard. Fortunately, piano concertos Nos. 1, 3 and 4 were recorded in that period; sadly, though the piano is fairly well projected, the orchestra sounds pretty horrible, especially the tutti passages which remind me of a lost radio station. The same goes for the Paganini Rhapsody which was taped as early as 1934. Rachmaninoff's own transcription of Tchaikovsky's tender ''Lullaby'' was one of the last recordings he made, in 1942, and it is remarkable how little background noise there is and how clear even the quietest passages are.

Going back to the concertos, the Second one is a special case. It is the only one that was recorded twice: 1924 acoustically and 1929 electrically, the former being released here for the first time since the 78rpm era, the latter being of course superior sonically. This is perhaps the finest of Rachmaninoff's interpretations of his own concerti. The many lyrical passages in all three movements are played with exquisite tenderness, whereas the dramatic ones have an awesome power and need to be heard in order to be believed.

That said, the other three concertos are stupendously played as well and, needless to say, totally differently than anything in modern times. One might at first be shocked by the absurdly fast tempo in the beginning of the First Concerto, but one soon gets used to it. Only in the Third Concerto do I have a few minor quibbles, like the quiet beginning of the third movement which is simply out of place. But the cadenza in the first one should serve as an example for the youngsters today. These incandescent readings are all the more remarkable since, reportedly, at the time Rachmaninoff was already suffering badly from the cancer that took him to the grave in 1943.

For those who wish to compare the sound of acoustical and electrical recordings, there are plenty of opportunities here. Rachmaninoff recorded his famous C sharp minor prelude and the slightly less popular ''Polka de V. R.'' three times each (1919, 1921, 1928); note also the difference between the two acoustical recordings here. In addition to the Second Concerto, he recorded twice many miniatures as well: his own ''Serenade'' (Op. 3 No. 5; 1922, 1936), Tchaikovsky's ''Troika'' (1920, 1928) and Mendelssohn's ''Spinning Song'' (1920, 1928), to name but a few.

It is strange, however, that Rachmaninoff made so few recordings for 23 years. This may perhaps be explained with the historical context. Today we are spoiled with mass production of digital recordings on a grand scale, but it should be remembered that in the 1920s and 1930s recording was still a novelty, not altogether different than sorcery perhaps. Probably artists at the time looked askance at it as something that would not last. Pity if they did for they could not have been more wrong. Too bad that Rachmaninoff never made any other recording of his shattering ''Elegie'' Op. 3 No. 1 or Chopin's Second Scherzo except on piano rolls. Too bad, also, that all those treasures mentioned in the discography printed in the ''biography'' by Bertensson and Leyda, such as Liszt's Rhapsodie Espagnole or ''Au bord d'une source'', were apparently lost. And what wouldn't I give for a recording of Rachmaninoff of some of the concertos he played at concerts, such as both of Liszt's, his Totentanz or Tchaikovsky's First!

Be that as it may, we must be grateful for what is left. So several highlights more follow.

Of course among the most interesting things in this box-set are Rachmaninoff's own works and how the composer interpreted them. Alas, though we are fortunate to have all concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody, the solo piano fare is meagre: eight preludes (out of 24), three etudes-tableaux (17), one musical moment (6), two pieces from Op. 10 (7), four pieces from Op. 3 (5, but the most beautiful is missing: the ''Elegie''), nothing either from the First or the Second sonata, let alone from the Corelli or Chopin variations. Except for the highly disappointing G minor prelude, with its shoddy climaxes so far removed from the powerful renditions of Horowitz and Lugansky, the other pieces are superbly played, and mostly available in an electrical version. My personal favourites are the transcendental Musical Moment Op. 16 No. 2 (1940), the uncompromising Etude-tableau Op. 39 No. 6 and, of course, any of the three recording of the C sharp minor prelude. Interestingly, as it seems, Rachmaninoff's interpretations are not so conservative and unchangeable as the rumour has it, but each one of them is none the less unique for that. The prelude is played way faster than is customary nowadays, but it has an irresistible and fully convincing drive.

I have to say, though, that I firmly disagree with everybody who considers any of the composer's recordings of his own works as ''definitive'' or ''authoritative''. This is a farrago of nonsense by default. There is no such thing, and thank God (should he exist) that we have no recordings of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt; they would be held as ''definitive'' and nobody would bother to play the music anymore. As far as Rachmaninoff is concerned, there are numerous examples that his works, as is essential for all great works, can be treated in many different ways with equal validity. I love his virile renditions of the first three concertos, but I wouldn't want to be without the First with Ashkenazy/Previn, the Second with Weissenberg/Karajan, or the Third with Horowitz or Bolet (both live, 1978 and 1969 respectively). Sometimes, indeed, Rachmaninoff is completely surpassed, almost embarrassed. The case of the G minor prelude has already been mentioned, the Humoresque from Op. 10 is another example. Rachmaninoff's recording is terrific, but even he would sit up and take notice if he could hear Horowitz's demonic live recording from 1979.

Some of the most delightful recordings in the whole box-set are those of Rachmaninoff's own transcriptions. These are gems, all of them. Most can be found on CD 7 and date from his earliest electrical years (1925-29). I particularly relish ''Liebesfreud'' which Rachmaninoff recorded twice (1925, 1942), playing two very different versions of the same piece. Mussorgsky's ''Hopak'' (1925) and Rimsky-Korsakov's ''The Flight of the Bumble-Bee'' (1929) are equally dashing, and so is the notoriously difficult Scherzo from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer's Night Dream of which Rachmaninoff obviously makes a child's game. Last but not least, his own transcription of Schubert's ''Wohin?'' (inexplicably translated in the booklet as ''The Brooklet''?!) makes a most interesting comparison with Liszt's version.

(Fascinatingly, in 1972 
Jorge Bolet recorded, very differently of course, many of these transcriptions in a now legendary LP which can be found as ''bonus tracks'' to his fabulous Carnegie Hall recital in PHILIPS' Great Pianists of the 20th Century series.)

Among the highlights certainly are Rachmaninoff's Liszt's recordings. Unfortunately, in addition to the already mentioned Second Hungarian Rhapsody, there are only two more – ''Gnomenreigen'' (1925) and the Second Polonaise (1925) – but both are among the finest on record. On the same CD 5 there are also four of Liszt's transcriptions of songs by Chopin and Schubert; among them ethereal performance of the famous ''Ständchen'' (1942) stands out.

Among the Chopin highlights from the ''electrical years'' there is a sweeping version of the Second Sonata (1930) with one of the fastest, singularly convincing though, funeral marches ever committed to disc. Also notable is the Waltz in E minor, op. posth. (1930), taken at a breakneck tempo too. Not to be missed either are a wild recording of Schumann's Carnaval (1929), with more than a touch of histrionics that suits it to perfection, and a blistering account of Beethoven's 32 Variations in C minor WoO 80 (1925); unfortunately some of the variations in the latter are omitted. (Reportedly, Arthur Schnabel himself once heard Rachmaninoff playing a Beethoven's sonata and flatly said that it was the best Beethoven he had ever heard; another great loss: Rachmaninoff never recorded any of the Beethoven's sonatas – save one for violin and piano with Kreisler but that doesn't count.)

Since these 10 discs, on the whole, do confirm beyond any reasonable doubt Rachmaninoff's colossal stature as pianist, I may be allowed to conclude with few mild complaints. I am rather amused when people start gushing and proclaim Rachmaninoff for the greatest pianists of the last century who could do no wrong. This is not true. Rachmaninoff's fingers may have been infallible, I don't know about that, but his taste is sometimes rather questionable. To name two examples, Mozart's Turkish March is way too rushed and sloppy, and the middle section of Schubert's Impromptu (Op. 90 No. 4) is positively crude and insensitive. And there is one place – only one, I think – where Rachmaninoff's playing dangerously approaches complete disaster. This is Chopin's Third Ballade (1925) whose wonderful climax is played at lightning speed that borders on travesty.

Never mind. These are minor quibbles which do not in the least mar an otherwise absolutely fabulous set of recordings, a unique memento from another era of great pianism that will never happen again. By way of conclusion, two little pieces of advice to all newcomers to this set. First, do not make this your introduction to Rachmaninoff's works; first get yourself acquainted with the concertos and as many of the pieces for solo piano as possible in modern recordings with decent sound; thus you will appreciate the uniqueness of Rachmaninoff's artistry much more fully. Second, when you do come to listening to this set, start from the last two discs which have the oldest recordings with the worst sound and then listen to the others in reverse order; thus you will have better and better sound with each next disc, and when you finally reach the concertos on the first two they will sound like digital recordings.

P. S. Few words about the presentation. The box set comes in a handsome slipcase which holds three thick jewel cases (one with two discs; two with four discs each). Overall the set, though bulky, is very convenient to handle. The booklet is excellent. In addition to full track-list with years of recording, it contains a fascinating biographical essay by Francis Crociata exploring Rachmaninoff's life and multifarious talents, another essay (uncredited) with many important details about his recording activities, and finally a most useful alphabetical index by composers in which you may easily find what pieces by whom, when and how many times, did Rachmaninoff record.

P. P. S. I am no expert as regards transfers of historical recordings on CD, but I should like to mention that these particular ones were transferred by Ward Marston himself. Besides, all of the 
piano concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody have been released by Naxos, restored by their ''magician'' Mark Obert-Thorn. To my ears, they don't sound conspicuously better than these RCA transfers.

1 comment:

  1. I own the set of CD's and have listened to ALL the tracks countless times for many years. In the process, I have learned a great deal about communication in music, communication through sound, phrasing,
    nuance, subtle pedal use - all physical things which miraculously
    have enormous psychological impact on the listener. Almost surreal...Vladimir Pleshakov