Thursday, 2 May 2013

Review: Rachmaninoff - Complete Recordings - RCA Gold Seal, 10CD, 1992


Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943)

The Complete Recordings

RCA Gold Seal, 1992.
10CD. Liner notes by Francis Crociata. Index.
TT: 65:40+71:53+58:55+58:13+66:00+66:04+62:30+63:17+62:45+67:43.

CD 1

Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 [31:33] (recorded 1929)
[1] I. Moderato; Allegro [9:44]
[2] II. Adagio sostenuto [10:46]
[3] III. Allegro scherzando [10:55]
The Philadelphia Orchestra / Leopold Stokowski

Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 [34:01] (1939-40)
[4] I. Allegro ma non tanto [13:54]
[5] II. Intermezzo: Adagio [8:39]
[6] III. Finale: Alla breve [11:24]
The Philadelphia Orchestra / Eugene Ormandy

CD 2

Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1 [24:51] (1939-40)
[1] I. Vivace [12:04]
[2] II. Andante [5:20]
[3] III. Allegro vivace [7:18]

Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40 [24:39] (1941)
[4] I. Allegro vivace [9:45]
[5] II. Largo [6:05]
[6] III. Allegro vivace [8:45]

The Philadelphia Orchestra / Eugene Ormandy

Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 [22:10] (1934)
[7]-[32] Introduction – Variation I – Tema – Variations II–XXIV
The Philadelphia Orchestra / Leopold Stokowski

CD 3

[1] Rachmaninoff: Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 [18:06] (1929)
[2] Rachmaninoff: Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14 (orch.: Rachmaninoff) [3:49] (1929)

Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 [36:50] (1939)
[3] I. Lento; Allegro moderato [12:40] 
[4] II. Adagio ma non troppo [11:39]
[5] III. Allegro [12:23]

The Philadelphia Orchestra / Sergei Rachmaninoff

CD 4

[1]-[3] Beethoven: Sonata in G major, Op. 30 No. 3 [15:19] (1928)
[4]-[7] Schubert: Sonata in A major, D. 574 [19:40] (1928)
[8]-[10] Grieg: Sonata in C minor, Op. 45 [23:05] (1928) 

Fritz Kreisler, violin

CD 5

[1] Bach: Sarabande (from Partita No. 4, BWV 828) [4:18] (1925)
[2] Handel: Air and Variations (from Harpsichord Suite No. 5) [4:14] (1936)
[3] Mozart: Turkish March (Sonata K. 331, III) [2:12] (1925)

Beethoven: 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80 [7:52] (1925)
[4]-[28] Thema – Variations I–XIV – XIX – XXII–XXVIII – XXXI, XXXII

[29] Chopin-Liszt: Heimkehr [1:24] (1942)
[30] Chopin-Liszt: Mädchens Wunsch [2:39] (1942)
[31] Schubert-Liszt: Das Wandern [1:38] (1925)
[32] Schubert-Liszt: Ständchen [4:22] (1942)
[33] Liszt: Polonaise No. 2 [7:36] (1925)
[34] Mendelssohn: Spinning Song [1:40] (1928)
[35] Schubert: Impromptu in A flat major, Op. 90 No. 4 [4:28] (1925)
[36] Liszt: Gnomenreigen [3:03] (1925)
[37] Gluck-Sgambati: Melodie (from Orfeo ed Euridice) [3:26] (1925)
[38] Mendelssohn: Etude in F major, Op. 104b No. 2 [2:49] (1927)
[39] Mendelssohn: Etude in A minor, Op. 104b No. 2 [1:45] (1927)
[40] Schumann-Tausig: Der Kontrabandiste [1:48] (1942)
[41] Paderewski: Minuet, Op. 14 No. 1 [3:49] (1927)
[42] Kreisler-Rachmaninoff: Liebesfreud [4:59] (1942)

CD 6

Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 [18:47] (1930)
[1] I. Grave; Doppio movimento [5:50]
[2] II. Scherzo [5:17]
[3] III. Marche funèbre [6:09]
[4] IV. Presto [1:26]

[5]-[26] Schumann: Carnaval, Op. 9 [23:01] (1929)
[27] Chopin: Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 9 No. 2 [4:42] (1927)
[28] Chopin: Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64 No. 2 [3:34] (1927)
[29] Chopin: Waltz in A flat major, Op. 64 No. 3 [2:45] (1927)
[30] Chopin: Ballade No. 3 in A flat major, Op. 47 [7:18] (1925)
[31] Chopin: Mazurka in A minor, Op. 68 No. 2 [2:43] (1935)
[32] Chopin: Waltz in E minor, Op. posth. [1:44] (1930)

CD 7

[1] Bach-Rachmaninoff: Preludio (from Partita No. 3, BWV 1006) [3:13] (1942)
[2] Bach-Rachmaninoff: Gavotte (from Partita No. 3, BWV 1006) [2:49] (1942)
[3] Bach-Rachmaninoff: Gigue (from Partita No. 3, BWV 1006) [1:02] (1942)
[4] Mendelssohn-Rachmaninoff: Scherzo (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) [3:58] (1935)
[5] Kreisler-Rachmaninoff: Liebesfreud [6:59] (1925)
[6] Schubert-Rachmaninoff: Wohin? [2:19] (1925)
[7] Rachmaninoff: Polka de V. R. [3:47] (1928)
[8] Rachmaninoff: Etude-tableau in A minor, Op. 39 No. 6 [2:30] (1925)
[9] Rachmaninoff: Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2 [3:38] (1928)
[10] Mussorgsky-Rachmaninoff: Hopak (from Sorochinsky Fair) [1:46] (1925)
[11] Tchaikovsky-Rachmaninoff: Lullaby, Op. 16 No. 1 [4:00] (1942)
[12] Rimsky-Korsakov-Rachmaninoff: The Flight of the Bumblebee [1:10] (1929)
[13] Beethoven-Rubinstein: Turkish March (from The Ruins of Athens) [3:01] (1925)
[14] Borodin: Scherzo [2:57] (1935)
[15] Tchaikovsky: Troika (The Seasons: November) [3:54] (1928)
[16] Scriabin: Prelude, Op. 11 No. 8 [2:34] (1929)
[17] Strauss II-Tausig: Man lebt nur einmal [6:57] (1927)
[18] Traditional-Rachmaninoff: Powder and Paint [3:45] (1926)
[19] Rachmaninoff: Polka italienne (piano, four hands) [1:19] (c. 1938)

Nadejda Plevitskaya, soprano [18]
Natalie Rachmaninoff, piano [19]

CD 8

Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 [30:19] (1924)
[1] I. Moderato; Allegro [9:25]
[2] II. Adagio sostenuto [10:13]
[3] III. Allegro scherzando [10:38]
The Philadelphia Orchestra / Leopold Stokowski

[4] Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G flat major, Op. 23 No. 10 [3:17] (1940)
[5] Rachmaninoff: Prelude in E major, Op. 32 No. 3 [2:20] (1940)
[6] Rachmaninoff: Prelude in F major, Op. 32 No. 7 [2:13] (1940)
[7] Rachmaninoff: Prelude in F minor, Op. 32 No. 6 [1:18] (1940)
[8] Rachmaninoff: Etude-tableau in C major, Op. 33 No. 2 [2:13] (1940)
[9] Rachmaninoff: Etude-tableau in E flat major, Op. 33 No. 7 [1:44] (1940)
[10] Rachmaninoff: Daisies, Op. 38 No. 8 [2:09] (1940)
[11] Rachmaninoff: Oriental Sketch [1:46] (1940)
[12] Rachmaninoff: Mélodie in E major, Op. 3 No. 3 [3:47] (1940)
[13] Rachmaninoff: Serenade in B flat major, Op. 3 No. 5 [2:53] (1936)
[14] Rachmaninoff: Humoresque in G major, Op. 10 No. 5 [3:29] (1940)
[15] Rachmaninoff: Lilacs, Op. 21 No. 5 [2:18] (1942)
[16] Rachmaninoff: Moment musical in E flat minor, Op. 16 No. 2 [2:51] (1940)

CD 9

[1] Chopin: Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op. 63 No. 3 [2:01] (1923)
[2] Chopin: Nocturne in F sharp major, Op. 15 No. 2 [3:39] (1923)
[3] Chopin: Waltz in E flat major, Op. 18 [4:30] (1921)
[4] Chopin: Waltz in F major, Op. 34 No. 3 [2:44] (1920)
[5] Chopin: Waltz in D flat major, Op. 64 No. 1 [1:56] (1921)
[6] Chopin: Waltz in B minor, Op. 69 No. 2 [2:59] (1923)
[7] Chopin: Waltz in G flat major, Op. 70 No. 1 [1:50] (1921)
[8] Chopin: Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor, Op. 39 [6:54] (1924)
[9] Chopin: Waltz in D flat major, Op. 64 No. 1 [2:12] (1923)
[10] Daquin: Le coucou [2:00] (1920)
[11] Bizet-Rachmaninoff: Minuet (from “L’Arlésienne” Suite No. 1) [2:41] (1922)
[12] Saint-Saëns-Siloti: Le cygne (from Le carnaval des animau) [3:01] (1924)
[13] Mendelssohn: Spinning Song [1:48] (1920)
[14] Grieg: Waltz (from Lyric Piece, Op. 12) [1:41] (1921)
[15] Grieg: Elfentanz (from Lyric Pieces, Op. 12) [0:40] (1921)
[16] Dohnányi: Etude in F minor, Op. 28 No. 6 [2:40] (1921)
[17] Henselt: Si oiseau j’étais / If I Were a Bird [1:42] (1923)
[18] Moszkowski: La jongleuse (Etude, Op. 52 No. 4) [1:48] (1923)
[19] Debussy: Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum(from Children’s Corner) [2:02] (1921)
[20] Debussy: Golliwogg’s Cakewalk (from Children’s Corner) [3:09] (1921)
[21] Tchaikovsky: Troika (The Seasons: November) [3:49] (1920)
[22] Tchaikovsky: Humoresque in G major, Op. 10 No. 2 [2:45] (1923)
[23] Tchaikovsky: Waltz in A flat major, Op. 40 No. 8 [2:58] (1923)

CD 10

[1] Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No. 5 [3:32] (1920)
[2] Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G sharp minor, Op. 32 No. 12 [2:31] (1921)
[3] Rachmaninoff: Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2 [3:36] (1921)
[4] Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G major, Op. 32 No. 5 [2:59] (1920)
[5] Rachmaninoff: Serenade in B flat major, Op. 3 No. 5 [3:07] (1922)
[6] Rachmaninoff: Lilacs, Op. 21 No. 5 [2:29] (1923)
[7] Rachmaninoff: Polichinelle in F sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 4 [3:35] (1923)
[8] Rachmaninoff: Polka de V. R. [4:00] (1921)
[9] Kreisler-Rachmaninoff: Liebesleid [4:19] (1921)
[10] Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (Cadenza: Rachmaninoff) [10:25] (1919)
[11] D. Scarlatti-Tausig: Pastorale in E minor (Sonata, L. 413) [3:59] (1919)
[12] Mozart: Theme and Variations (Sonata K. 331, I) [4:05] (1919)
[13] Chopin: Waltz in A flat major, Op. 42 [3:52] (1919)
[14] Chopin: Waltz, Op. 64 No. 3 [2:45] (1919)
[15] Rachmaninoff: Polka de V. R. [4:08] (1919)
[16] Rachmaninoff: Barcarolle in G minor, Op. 10 No. 3 [3:53] (1919)
[17] Rachmaninoff: Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2 [3:41] (1919)

Sergei Rachmaninoff, piano & conductor [CD 3]

Reissue edition produced by John Pfeiffer

Disc to DAT transfer: Ward Marston
Digitally remastered in BMG/RCA Studios, New York City, by
André Gauthier, supervisor; Anthony Salvatore, engineer

=======================================

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 less reliable than even the most primitive acoustical or electrical recordings. Thus we can appreciate Rachmaninoff's genius in at least three different directions: composer, pianist and conductor; and if the first is generally recognised nowadays, the other two 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 (CD 1 and 2), accompanying Fritz Kreisler, no less, in sonatas by Grieg, Schubert and Beethoven (CD 4), and playing a highly selective repertoire for solo piano ranging from Bach to Debussy (almost everything on CD 5 to 10). As a special bonus, we get Rachmaninoff as a conductor (CD 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. The very thought that we are able to listen to 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 his life coincided with the invention of sound recording.

Now, by modern standards the extreme tempo fluctuations of Rachmaninoff's playing can only be described as highly idiosyncratic. To say the very least! 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 his chances for even a modest career would vanish into thin air; indeed, he would be lucky to avoid being stoned to death. 

The first and most obvious thing about Rachmaninoff's playing is the speed. He is fast! Occasionally, it must be admitted, this is at the expense of the music, but more often it is a refreshing exception among the digital dullness that reigns supreme today. On second hearing, leaving aside pointless comparisons, I am astonished by the unprecedented degree of freedom, the enormous variety of colours, and the almost inhuman control of Rachmaninoff's playing. 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. Like most clichés, this one is very true, yet not quite as true as some people would have you believe. I daresay Rachmaninoff is a musical aristocrat and puritan, in the best sense of these words, and I suppose he is generally 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!), Rachmaninoff certainly belonged to the grand nineteenth-century Romantic tradition of piano playing whose chief object was to communicate the emotional content of the music. This subjective approach implied, indeed demanded, freedom in regard to tempo, phrasing and even the notes themselves which is an extinct species today. 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 Rachmaninoff's recordings – 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 numerous cuts: a product of the times that has to be endured; regrettable, certainly, but not as bad as you think. Besides, it is essential to realise that the recordings on these 10 CDs span of 23 years (1919-1942), a period in which the quality of sound recordings improved quite a bit.

Rachmaninoff's earliest recordings were acoustical (that is, before the microphone era), made in 1919 for Edison, and, unbelievable as it may seem, on an upright piano. On 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 of all: 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 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. 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 the whole set which is completely unlistenable due to 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. Among the highlights are his own transcription of Kreisler's ''Liebesleid'' (1921), 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 preserved for posterity 6 waltzes, 1 mazurka, 1 nocturne and the Third Scherzo. Too bad the Scherzo is in a rather poor sound even for the acoustical era. 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 sessions 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 in terms of clarity and depth. Certainly, there still is background noise, 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, the four piano concertos were recorded during that period. Sadly, though the piano is fairly well caught, the orchestra sounds DDD (Dim, Distant, Distorted), especially the mighty climaxes which remind one, or at least me, of a lost radio station. The Paganini Rhapsody, recorded when it was brand new, is something of an exception: fantastic dynamic range and excellent balance for 1934 (not to mention stupendous playing even by Rachmaninoff’s own standards). 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 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, performed with musical authority that has nothing to do with actual authorship. The lyrical passages in all three movements are played with exquisite tenderness without being dragged to death, whereas the dramatic pages have an awesome power that’s almost frightening. 

That said, the other three concertos are magnificent 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 and then miracles being to happen. Only in the Third Concerto do I have a few minor quibbles, like the quiet beginning of the third movement or slight rushing in the end of the cadenza, but neither is worth making a fuss about. These readings of the First and Third Concerto are all the more remarkable since, reportedly, at the time Rachmaninoff was already suffering 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. 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 ''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 Rachmaninoff recording of some of the concertos he played at concerts, for example both of Liszt's and 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 items are Rachmaninoff's recordings of his own works. 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 from Op. 3 (5, but the most beautiful, ''Elegie'', is missing), nothing either from the First or the Second sonata, let alone from the Corelli or Chopin Variations. Except for the disappointing G minor prelude, with its shoddy climaxes so far removed from the crispness of Lugansky or the intensity of Horowitz, 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 recordings of the C sharp minor prelude. This last is played way faster than is customary nowadays, but it has an irresistible drive and is by no means lacking in majesty.

(The three recordings of the C sharp minor prelude are illuminating. Rachmaninoff's interpretations, it seems, are not so conservative and unchangeable as the rumour has it. All “repetitions”, though obviously similar, are by no means identical. So much for the old cliché that Rachmaninoff never wavered once he had made up his mind how certain piece should sound. He never quite made up his mind, as it were, even about one of the earliest, and by far the most famous, of his pieces for solo piano.)

I have to say, though, that I firmly disagree with everybody who considers a composer's recordings of his own works as ''definitive''. This is 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 their 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 incandescent 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 performance from 1979. However, the Paganini Rhapsody is, again, something of an exception. It contradicts the beginning of this paragraph with a vengeance. It makes modern performances as good as non-existent.

Some of the most delightful recordings of all 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 relish the witty charm of ''Liebesfreud'', which Rachmaninoff recorded twice (1925, 1942), playing two very different versions of the same piece, the dazzling brilliance of Mussorgsky's ''Hopak'' (1925) and Rimsky-Korsakov's ''The Flight of the Bumble-Bee'' (1929), and the notoriously difficult Scherzo from Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer's Night Dream which sounds awfully easy in Rachmaninoff's hands. Last but not least, his own transcription of Schubert's ''Wohin?'' (foolishly translated in the booklet as ''The Brooklet'') makes a most interesting comparison with Liszt's version.

(Fascinatingly, in 1972 Jorge Bolet recorded many of these transcriptions in a now legendary LP which can be found as ''bonus tracks'' to his fabulous Carnegie Hall recital on Vol. 10 from Great Pianists of the 20th Century. Bolet said countless times that Rachmaninoff was his idol as a student in the Curtis Institute and it was Rachmaninoff’s sound that he tried to emulate. This 1972 LP is a fine example of the vast difference between emulation and imitation.)

Rachmaninoff's recordings of Liszt are definitely among the highlights. 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. Such a perfect marriage of technique and musicality is all too rare in Liszt today. On the same CD 5, there are also four Lisztian transcriptions of songs by Chopin and Schubert; an 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 and most bizarre, singularly convincing though, funeral marches ever committed to disc. Also notable is the Waltz in E minor, op. posth. (1930), taken at breakneck speed but sparkling all the way. Not to be missed either are a wild recording of Schumann's Carnaval (1929), with more than a touch of histrionics that suits the music to perfection, and a blistering account of Beethoven's 32 Variations in C minor WoO 80 (1925); some of the variations in the latter are sadly omitted, but the performance still makes almost any other sound tame and dull. (Reportedly, Arthur Schnabel himself once heard Rachmaninoff playing a Beethoven 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, confirm beyond reasonable doubt Rachmaninoff's colossal stature as pianist, I may be allowed to conclude with a few mild complaints. I am rather amused when people start gushing and proclaim Rachmaninoff for the greatest pianist 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 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 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 rest in reverse order. Thus you will have better and better sound with each new 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 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 composer 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 on historical recordings and the complicated ways by which they are restored, but it’s worth noting that the four piano concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody were released by Naxos and their resident magician Mark Obert-Thorn in 1999. To my ears, they don't sound conspicuously better than these (now 25 years old) RCA transfers. But they do sound better, if not as much as one may wish, and are very much worth having at the Naxos price.

Appendix: A Short Discography

The following discography is taken, heavily abridged and rearranged, from the Rachmaninoff Bible by Barrie Martyn, Rachmaninoff: Composer, Pianist, Conductor, Scolar Press, 1990, pp. 451-92. Only Rachmaninoff’s recordings for solo piano or as a soloist are given; the little that has survived with him as a conductor or an accompanist is already listed on CD 3 and 4 (and CD 7: 18) above. 

I have omitted all different takes and matrix numbers, which Mr Martyn meticulously notes, but it should be kept in mind that many pieces were recorded several times on different dates and often more than one take was made during a single session. The process must have been tedious and frustrating, especially for large-scale works which took two or more sides, and that may further explain the relatively small number of Rachmaninoff recordings (but greater and more faithful than those of many of his contemporaries). 

I have given only the date(s) on which the take(s) commercially released were recorded. Asterisks denote (all takes of) unreleased recordings – some destroyed according to Rachmaninoff’s wishes, others kept “on hold” for re-recording that never happened and now considered lost – of pieces otherwise missing from the discography. All recordings were made for RCA Victor except the 1919 sessions (Edison) and the two “live” items from 1931 (Bell Telephone Laboratories). I have incorporated the exact dates of all piano rolls (-pr) as listed in the booklets of the two “A Window in Time” discs (Telarc, 1998-99); Mr Martyn vaguely gives only years of release (pp. 501-5). 

Bach, Johann Sebastian (1685–1750)
- Sarabande from Clavier Partita No. 4, BWV 828: 16/12/1925; 22/12/1925-pr
- Preludio, Gavotte & Gigue from Violin Partita No. 3, BWV 1006 (arr. Rachmaninoff): 26&27/2/1942  
Beethoven, Ludwig van (1770–1827)
- 32 Variations in C minor, WoO 80: 13/4/1925 & 14/5/1925
- Turkish Marsh from The Ruins of Athens, Op. 113 (arr. Rubinstein): 14/12/1925; 1/2/1927-pr
- Sonata No. 6, Op. 10/2, 3rd mvt: 26/4/1920*, 3-4/5/1920* & 17/5/1920*
Bizet, Georges (1838–1875)
- Minuet from L’Arlésienne (arr. Rachmaninoff): 24/2/1922; 6/4/1922-pr 
Borodin, Alexander (1833–1887)
- Scherzo in A flat: 23/12/1935
Chopin, Frederic (1810–1849)
- Ballade No. 3, Op. 47: 13/4/1925
- Etude, Op. 10/5: 5/1921*
- Etude, Op. 25/2-3: 17/5/1920*
- Etude, Op. 25/9: 5/1921*
- Heimkehr (arr. Liszt): 27/2/1942
- Mädchens Wunsch (arr. Liszt): 13/1/1923-pr; 27/2/1942
- Mazurka, Op. 63/3: 27/12/1923
- Mazurka, Op. 68/2: 23/12/1935
- Nocturne, Op. 9/2: 5/4/1927
- Nocturne, Op. 15/1: 1/2/1927-pr
- Nocturne, Op. 15/2: 27/12/1923
- Prelude, Op. 28/19: 27/12/1923*
- Scherzo No. 2, Op. 31: 1/2/1929-pr
- Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39: 18/3/1924
- Sonata No. 2, Op. 35: 18/2/1930
- Waltz, Op. 18: 21/1/1921; 5/3/1921-pr
- Waltz, Op. 34/3: 4/11/1920; 13/4/1923-pr
- Waltz, Op. 42: 18/4/1919
- Waltz, Op. 64/1: 2/4/1921; 5/4/1923
- Waltz, Op. 64/2: 5/4/1927
- Waltz, Op. 64/3: 19/4/1919; 5/4/1927
- Waltz, Op. 69/2: 24/10/1923
- Waltz, Op. 70/1: 2/4/1921
- Waltz, Op. posth. (in E minor): 18/2/1930
Daquin, Louis-Claude (1694–1772)
- Le Coucou: 21/10/1920
Debussy, Claude (1862–1918)
- Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum: 21/1/1921
- Golliwogg’s Cakewalk: 2/4/1921
- Serenade for the Doll: 21/1/1921*; 18/3/1921*
Dohnányi, Ernst von (1877–1960)
- Etude-Caprice, Op. 28/6: 25/10/1921
Gluck, Christoph Willibald (1714–1787)
- Mélodie from Orfeo (arr. Sgambati): 14/1/1925-pr; 14/5/1925
Grieg, Edvard (1843–1907)
- Waltz & Elfin Dance, Op. 12/2, 4: 12/10/1921
Handel, George Frideric (1685–1759)
- Air and Variations from Harpsichord Suite No. 5: 3/1/1936
Henselt, Adolf (1814–1889)
- Etude, Op. 2/6 “Si oiseau j’étais”: 13/11/1923-pr; 27/12/1923
Kreisler, Fritz (1875–1962)
- Liebesfreud (arr. Rachmaninoff): 22/12/1925-pr; 29/12/1925; 26/2/1942
- Liebesleid (arr. Rachmaninoff): 25/10/1921; 6/4/1922-pr 
Liszt, Franz (1811–1886)
- Au bord d’une source: 21/10/1920*
- Ballade No. 2: 3/12/1931*
- Gnomenreigen: 16/12/1925 
- La Campanella: 3/5/1920*
- Liebestraum No. 3: 18/3/1924*
- Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2: 23/4/1919
- Polonaise No. 2: 13/4/1925
- Spanish Rhapsody: 27/12/1923*; 18/3/1924*
Mendelssohn, Felix (1809–1847)
- Etudes, Op. 104/2-3: 5/4/1927
- Rondo capriccioso, Op. 14: 17/5/1920*
- Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (arr. Rachmaninoff): 23/12/1935
- Songs without words, Op. 67/4 (Spinning Song): 3/11/1920; 5/3/1921-pr; 25/4/1928
Moszkowski, Moritz (1854–1925)
- La Jongleuse, Op. 52/4: 6/3/1923
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus (1756–1791)
- Sonata, K. 331, 1st mvt: 18/4/1919
- Sonata, K. 331, 3rd mvt: 14/5/1925
Mussorgsky, Modest (1839–1881)
- Hopak from Sorochinsky Fair (arr. Rachmaninoff): 5/3/1921-pr; 13/4/1925
Paderewski, Ignace Jan (1860–1941)
- Minuet, Op. 14/1: 1/2/1927-pr; 5/4/1927
Rachmaninoff, Sergei (1873–1943)
- Barcarolle, Op. 10/3: 17/3/1919-pr; 24/4/1919
- Concerto No. 1, Op. 1: 4/12/1939 & 24/2/1940
- Concerto No. 2, Op. 18: 3/1/1924; 10&13/4/1929
- Concerto No. 3, Op. 30: 4/12/1939 & 24/2/1940
- Concerto No. 4, Op. 40: 20/12/1941
- Daisies, Op. 38/3: 18/3/1940
- Élégie, Op. 3/1: 4/4/1928-pr
- Etude, Op. 33/2: 18/3/1940
- Etude, Op. 33/7 (in E flat major): 18/3/1940
- Etude, Op. 33/8 (in G minor): 21/10/1920*
- Etude, Op. 39/4: 27/3/1928-pr
- Etude, Op. 39/6: 5/3/1921-pr; 16/12/1925
- Humoresque, Op. 10/5: 3/17/1919-pr; 9/4/1940
- Lilacs, Op. 21/5: 6/4/1922-pr; 27/12/1923; 26/2/1942
- Mélodie, Op. 3/3: 17/3/1919-pr; 9/4/1940
- Moment musical, Op. 16/2: 18/3/1940
- Oriental Sketch: 18/3/1940
- Paganini Rhapsody, Op. 43: 24/12/1934
- Polichinelle, Op. 3/4: 17/3/1919-pr; 6/3/1923
- Polka de W. R.: 17/3/1919-pr; 24/4/1919; 12/10/1921; 4/4/1928
- Prelude, Op. 3/2: 17/3/1919-pr; 24/4/1919; 14/10/1921; 4/4/1928
- Prelude, Op. 23/5: 17/3/1919-pr; 17/5/1920
- Prelude, Op. 23/10: 18/3/1940
- Prelude, Op. 32/3: 18/3/1940
- Prelude, Op. 32/5: 3/5/1920
- Prelude, Op. 32/6-7: 18/3/1940
- Prelude, Op. 32/12: 21/1/1921
- Serenade, Op. 3/5: 4/11/1922; 13/4/1923-pr; 3/1/1936
Rimsky-Korsakov, Nicolai (1844–1908)
- The flight of the bumblebee (arr. Rachmaninoff): 1/2/1929-pr; 16/4/1929
Rubinstein, Anton (1829–1894)
- Barcarolle No. 2, Op. 45 (or No. 5, Op. 93/7?): 1/2/1929-pr
Saint-Saëns, Camille (1835–1921)
- The Swan (arr. Siloti): 30/12/1924 
Scarlatti, Domenico (1685–1757)
- Pastorale (Sonata, L. 413, arr. Tausig): 19/4/1919
Schubert, Franz (1797–1828)
- Das Wandern (arr. Liszt): 14/1/1925-pr; 14/4/1925
- Impromptu, D. 899/4: 29/12/1925; 27/3/1928-pr 
- Ständchen (from Schwanengesang, D. 957, arr. Liszt): 27/2/1942
- Wohin? (arr. Rachmaninoff): 22/12/1925-pr; 29/12/1925
Schumann, Robert (1810–1856)
- Carnaval, Op. 9: 9&10&12/4/1929
- Der Kontrabandiste (from Spanisches Liederspiel, Op. 74 arr. Tausig): 27/2/1942
- Novellette, Op. 21/8: 25/2/1942*
Scriabin, Alexander (1872–1915)
- Prelude, Op. 11/8: 16/4/1929
Smith, John Stafford (1750–1836)
- Star-Spangled Banner (arr. Rachmaninoff): 17/3/1919-pr
Strauss, Johann (18251899)
- The Blue Danube (arr. Schulz-Evler): 5/4/1923*
- Man lebt nur einmal (arr. Tausig): 5/4/1927
Tchaikovsky, Piotr Ilyich (1840–1893)
- Humoresque, Op. 10/2: 27/12/1923
- Lullaby, Op. 16/1 (arr. Rachmaninoff): 26/2/1942
- Troika, Op. 37/11: 17/3/1919-pr; 3/5/1920; 11/4/1928
- Waltz, Op. 40/8: 5/4/1923; 13/4/1923-pr
Weber, Carl Maria von (1786–1826)
- Momento  capriccioso, Op. 12: 20/10/1920*
- Perpetuum mobile (Rondo from Sonata, Op. 24): 3/12/1931*

Addendum: On Rachmaninoff’s Repertoire

The following highly selective list is taken from the same source as the discography above (ibid., pp. 417-38). It gives only works for solo piano or piano and orchestra which Rachmaninoff certainly played in public after 1917 but never recorded in any form (piano roll or sound, released or destroyed; so Liszt’s Second Ballade, for instance, is not included). The list is illuminating about the range of his repertoire and saddening about the discography’s failure to represent it accurately.

Bach
- English Suite No. 2, BWV 807
- Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 (arr. Liszt)
- Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543 (arr. Liszt)
- French Suite No. 6, BWV 817
- Italian Concerto, BWV 971
- “Nun freut euch”, BWV 734 (arr. Busoni)
- “Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland”, BWV 599 (arr. Busoni)
- Chaconne from Partita No. 2, BWV 1004 (arr. Busoni)
Balakirev
- Islamey
Beethoven
- Concerto No. 1, Op. 15
- Sonatas Nos. 7, 8, 12, 14, 16, 17, 23, 24, 26, 27, 30 & 32, Opp. 10/3, 13, 26, 27/2, 31/1-2, 57, 78, 81a, 90, 109 & 111
Brahms
- Ballades, Op. 10/1-2, Op. 118/3
- Intermezzo, Op. 118/6
Chopin
- Ballades Nos. 1, 2 & 4, Opp. 23, 38 & 52
- Barcarolle, Op. 60
- Berceuse, Op. 57
- Etudes, Op. 10 Nos. 1, 3, 10 & 12 
- Etudes, Op. 25 Nos. 4, 5, 7 & 12
- Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66
- Fantaisie, Op. 49
- Impromptu No. 2, Op. 36
- Mazurkas, Opp. 6/3, 7/2-3, 24/1, 33/4, 59/2-3, 63/2 & 67/1
- Nocturnes, Opp. 15/1, 27/1-2, 32/1, 37/2, 48/2, 55/1 & 62/2 
- Polonaises, Opp. 26/1-2, 40/1-2, 44, 53
- Preludes, Op. 28 Nos. 1-7, 11-12, 16, 22-23
- Rondo, Op. 16
- Scherzos Nos. 1 & 4, Opp. 20 & 54
- Sonata No. 3, Op. 58
- Tarantella, Op. 43
- Waltz, Op. 70/3
Debussy
- Children’s Corner, No. 5
- La Fille aux cheveux de lin
- Jardins sous la pluie
- Suite bergamasque
- Pour le Piano
Liszt
- Concerto No. 1
- Totentanz
- Concert Study “Il lamento”
- Consolation in E major, S172/?
- Transcendental Studies “Eroica” & “Harmonies du soir”
- Dante Sonata
- Funerailles
- Paganini Etudes Nos. 2, 5 & 6
- Grand Galop chromatique
- Hungarian Rhapsodies Nos. 9, 11 & 15
- Petrarch’s Sonnets Nos. 104 & 123
- Sonata in B minor
- Valse-impromptu
- Valse oubliee Nos. 1 & 3
- Venezia e Napoli: Tarantella
- Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen Zagen Variations
Medtner
- Fairy Tale Opp. 14/2, 20/1-2, 26/3, 34/1-3, 51/1
- Funeral March, Op. 31 No. 2
- Improvisation, Op. 31 No. 1
- Novelle, Op. 17/1-2
- Sonata-Fairy Tale, Op. 25/1
- Three Hymns in Praise of Toil, Op. 49
Mendelssohn
- Variations serieuses, Op. 54
- Songs Without Words, Opp. 19/3-4, 30/4-5, 38/5, 67/2,  85/1 & 102/5
Mozart
- Sonatas Nos. 9 & 11, KK. 311 & 576
Ravel
- Le tombeau de Couperin: Toccata
Schubert
- Andantino and Variations in B minor (arr. Tausig)
- Ave Maria (arr. Liszt)
- Die Forelle (arr. Liszt)
- Impromptu, D. 935/1
- Marche militaire (arr. Tausig)
- Moments musical, D. 780/3-4
- Sonata, D. 850: Rondo
Schumann
- Concerto, Op. 54
- Albumblätter, Op. 124/1-3
- Arabesque, Op. 18
- Davidsbundlertänze, Op. 6
- Fantasiestücke, Op. 12/4-6
- Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26
- Widmung (arr. Liszt)
- Nachtstücke, Op. 23
- Papillons, Op. 2
- Sonata No. 2, Op. 22
- Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13
Strauss
- Artist’s Life (arr. Godowsky)
- Forest Murmurs (arr. Tausig, Valse-Caprice No. 3)
- Moth (arr. Tausig, Valse-Caprice No. 1)
Wagner
- Magic Fire Music (arr. Brassin)
- Spinning Song (arr. Liszt)
Weber
- Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65 (arr. Tausig)

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

    ReplyDelete