Thursday, 23 May 2013

Review: Rachmaninoff - A Window in Time - TELARC, 2 CDs



Highly recommended, with a word of caution

I have to start by admitting that I don't understand all those fellows who proclaim that this is not Rachmaninoff, that these performances are ''robotic'', ''mechanic'', and other stuff like that. This is pure prejudice. But it is understandable. The very thought of listening to Rachmaninoff himself, a composer and pianist of genuine greatness, is enough to make one dizzy. But to have Rachmaninoff's own recordings in a fine digital sound, that does seem too good to be true. Well, it is and it isn't.

The source of the prejudice, I think, is two-fold: the sound and the processing. The latter is meticulously explained by Wayne Stahnke in the liner notes and it is a very complicated process, indeed, which involved scanning of the original piano rolls and playing them on Bösendorfer digital reproducing piano. Apart from Mr Stahnke's purely technical details, many of which I confess I don't understand, his most important point is that these piano rolls were not originally made for the notorious ''player piano'', a wretched device that has given bad name to piano rolls as completely incapable to reproduce the real sound of a pianist, but for reproducing piano: a far more sophisticated (and far more expensive) device which is able to reproduce every detail, even subtle nuances like pedaling, with startling clarity. Such an instrument Mr Stahnke's digital Bösendorfer was, only it played, not mechanical rolls, but computer files. This is enough to make one suspicious. Digital Rachmaninoff, indeed!

As for the sound here, it has clarity and crispness, to say nothing of amount of detail or dynamic range, which makes it absolutely impossible to believe that these recordings were originally made between 1919 and 1929, and on such primitive mechanical recording device as piano rolls. And yes, many subtle nuances and colours are remarkably retained and can be appreciated as in very few (if any) acoustical, or even electrical, recordings from the same time. Switching from the ''Window in Time'' CDs to Rachmaninoff's original sound recordings on RCA is a shock. Believe me, I know. This disc was my introduction to Rachmaninoff's playing and when I later came to listening to Rachmaninoff's real recordings, I was profoundly dismayed by the infinitely inferior sound.

In his otherwise indifferent essay in the booklet, Daniel Pollock at least once hits the nail on the head: we are fortunate to have both Rachmaninoff's sound recordings and his piano rolls. The emphasis is mine. If the former were missing, I readily confess that I would have been most suspicious and would never have accepted these glassy digital recordings as authentic. Well, authentic they are and aren't, but the former much more so than the latter. This is absolutely clear to anybody who takes the trouble to do some comparative analysis – and free his head from stupid preconceptions.

There are 19 pieces on this disc, and 16 them Rachmaninoff recorded for RCA as well, acoustically or electrically, usually with a gap of no more than a few years. Keeping in mind that Rachmaninoff is well-known for the conservative nature of his interpretations, which did change but a little with the passing years, the comparison between his piano rolls and sound recordings is more than valid. Well, such comparison shows beyond any reasonable doubt that at least 16 pieces of this disc are Rachmaninoff par excellence. His interpretation of virtually every piece is so unique, that one can't possibly make a mistake. Despite the jarring difference in the sound quality, these digitally reproduced piano rolls sound incredibly similar to Rachmaninoff's sound recordings. There are some differences, of course, but they are so minor and insignificant that they are not worth dwelling upon. Nor is the reason for them of any more importance.

Many of these recordings are pure revelations. Take, for example, the famous G minor prelude (Op. 23 No. 5), the haunting ''Barcarolle'' (Op. 10 No. 3) or the slightly sinister ''Polichinelle'' (Op. 3 No. 4). Rachmaninoff's sound recordings of these pieces are acoustical ones made between 1919 and 1923, before the much better electrical recordings were introduced in 1925; besides, these three pieces have some of the worst sound for their time and were never re-recorded later. Nevertheless, the original sound recordings are quite good enough to recognize Rachmaninoff in these piano rolls. And to hear the sharply accentuated march-like rhythm in the beginning of the G minor prelude or the astonishing passage work in ''Polichinelle'' is indeed a revelation that may well leave one with one's jaw dropped. Even some of Rachmaninoff's early electrical recordings, such as his own transcription of the ''Hopak'' from Mussorgsky's Sorochinsky Fair (recorded in 1925), are disappointingly subpar even for those ancient times. Hear the ''Hopak'' here: it will blow you away!

I mentioned a word of caution in the title and now I have to explain what I mean. In a nutshell, though all interpretations on this disc are unmistakably Rachmaninoff's own, the sound certainly is not. There may be numerous reasons for that – this is
a digital Bösendorfer, Rachmaninoff recorded mostly on Steinway concert grand, for instance – but this is beside the point. The fact is that, for all its astounding clarity of detail and fine dynamic range, the digital sound here is a trifle dry and has little to do with Rachmaninoff's own (literally) sonority which, for all their severe limitations, is quite evident in almost all of his sound recordings, including the acoustical ones.

So, if you want to fully appreciate Rachmaninoff's towering pianism, you really should listen both to his sound recordings and to such marvellously reproduced piano rolls. The latter will give many precious details that are otherwise difficult to discern, whereas the former will give you the real and authentic sound of Rachmaninoff. Yes, the background noise, the limited dynamic range and the often artificial sound do need some time to get used to them. But once you have done so, there is a whole new world to explore.

For my part, in spite of many a revelatory comparisons, the most important pieces on this disc remain the three that Rachmaninoff never made sound recordings of: his own transcription of ''The Star-Spangled Banner'', and two of his own compositions, Etude-tableau Op. 39 No. 4 and ''Elegie'' Op. 3 No. 1. Having compared all ''double pieces'', I have no hesitation to accept these interpretations as absolutely artistically, if not sonically, authentic. The ''Elegie'' is the finest gem, no doubt, and is one of my greatest regrets that Rachmaninoff never made a sound recording of it (he did record all four other pieces from Op. 3, some of them multiple times). It is an astonishing piece for a 19-year-old man to compose, showing convincingly that Rachmaninoff was already a mature composer at the time. His performance, of course, is significantly faster than what is fashionable nowadays, but the beautiful melodic line in is never distorted, nor the profound sadness of the piece diminished.

All in all, this disc is a downright amazing technological achievement and an indispensable addition to the shelves of every serious admirer of Rachmaninoff. But keep in mind that without his 
complete sound recordings for RCA, you will never have the full picture, both sonically and artistically, of Rachmaninoff's real stature as a pianist. At least as far as this picture can be reconstructed from the little that's left.

Everything about the differences and the similarities between Rachmaninoff's sound recordings and his digitally reproduced piano rolls said above is completely true about the second volume in the ''Window in Time'' series. Few special remarks will suffice here.

By far the most important among the 16 pieces on this disc are the three Rachmaninoff never recorded sonically, either acoustically or electrically. These are Rubinstein's ''Barcarolle'', which is just another proof why the great pianist is well forgotten as a composer, and Chopin's Nocturne Op. 15 No. 1 and the Second Scherzo, which may remind us that Rachmaninoff was a ''Chopinist'' to be reckoned with. At first glance, Chopin's pieces may seem to be too much on the slow side for Rachmaninoff, but everybody who has listened to his sound recordings of Chopin – most numerous after his own works – should know that this is not at all unusual. Rachmaninoff's stupendous recording of the Third Scherzo, unfortunately available only in poor acoustical sound, is a fine example of the stark contrasts that characterize his Chopin interpretations: the octave section is insanely fast, while the second subject is taken unusually slowly.

The gem on this particular disc certainly is the Second Scherzo. It takes Rachmaninoff nearly ten minutes to go through all of it, but at least he doesn't make any annoying cuts like the young Michelangelli. In fact, Rachmaninoff creates here an awe-inspiring interpretation that combines the demonic virtuosity of Horowitz with the aristocratic poise of Rubinstein. We can but divine what glorious sound he must have coaxed from his Steinway live in the concert hall.

Among the pieces which Rachmaninoff did record sonically as well there are fewer revelations in comparison with the other disc in the series. The reasons are two-fold. On the one hand, the program here contains a great deal more junk. One wonders whether it was Rachmaninoff's wish to record such pieces by Henselt, Paderewski and Gluck-Sgambati, or he was under certain pressure from the recording companies to produce lollipops for mass use. On the other hand, most of his sound recordings of these pieces are post-1924, that is from the electrical era, and thus do not sound so much worse than the digitally reproduced piano rolls in terms of clarity; as far as depth and sonority, and even some subtle nuances, are concerned, the sound recordings are way superior of course. Perhaps the two Chopin Waltzes (Op. 18 and Op. 34 No. 3) are the most precious among these rolls, because they allow us to appreciate details that are hardly discernible in the sound recordings of these pieces (acoustical ones from 1920-21).

In short, though less fine as a selection, this second disc in the ''Window in Time'' series is just as important for the Rachmaninoff buff as the first one. It goes without saying that it, too, must be listened to together with the corresponding 
sound recordings in order Rachmaninoff's unique pianism to be fully appreciated.

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