About this Recording
8.111397 - RACHMANINOV, Sergey: Piano Solo Recordings, Vol. 3 - Victor Recordings (1925-1942)

Great Pianists: Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
Solo Piano Recordings Volume 3 • His Works and Transcriptions


Sergei 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 Nikolay Zverev, a renowned disciplinarian. In fact, Rachmaninov and two other boys lived with Zverev under a strict regime of rigorous practice. In this environment, however, the young Rachmaninov met and heard the greatest musicians of the time, including Anton Rubinstein, Anton Arensky, Sergei 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, Rachmaninov 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, Rachmaninov 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, with winters in New York and summers in Europe.

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 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 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.

This third volume of Rachmaninov’s Victor recordings contains discs he made of his own solo compositions and arrangements from the year Victor introduced electrical recording in 1925 to a year before his death in 1943. It may seem strange that a musician as important as Rachmaninov was not asked to record his complete works for the gramophone. To hear him in his Piano Sonata No 2, Op 36, or the Suites for two pianos with Horowitz would be a real pleasure as well as being an historically important document, but as with the case of Busoni offering to record Bach’s complete Well-Tempered Clavier for Columbia, record executives were running a business that had to show profits. The works Victor wanted were the works the public wanted to hear and buy—the famous Prelude in C sharp minor, the Polka de V. R. and Rachmaninov’s arrangement of his friend Fritz Kreisler’s Liebesfreud. All of these works were recorded more than once and it is a testament to Rachmaninov’s perfectionism that the recording of the Prelude in C sharp minor from April 1928 heard here is take 23, (although only takes 18–22 were recorded electrically).

It was in March and April of 1940, near the end of his life, that Rachmaninov recorded a number of his less well known works. It is fortunate for posterity that Victor were in agreement so that we can now hear the composer in three Preludes from his Op 32, two of the Etudes-Tableaux from Op 33, and various other short pieces. Eleven works were recorded on 18 March and on that very same day Victor were recording his Suite No 1, Op 5, for two pianos at their Hollywood studio with the famous two-piano team of Vronsky and Babin. Rachmaninov returned to the studio on 9 April to record further takes of his song transcription Daisies and the Mélodie and Humoresque. These works were recorded in their new revised versions which were published in 1940 by Charles Foley who printed Rachmaninov’s works in America as well as those by Kreisler. The works show many facets of Rachmaninov’s playing style—his brilliance and clarity of touch and strong rhythmic flair, particularly in the Prelude in E major from Op 32 and Etude-Tableau in E flat from Op 33; his flexibility with rhythmic accompaniment in the Prelude in G flat and Mélodie, and sheer virtuosity in his own transcriptions and the Moment musical; and while the Polka de V.R. may not have the charm, wit and beguilement of a player such as Shura Cherkassky, it has a stunning control of technical aspects that is breath-taking.

Fifteen years before the 1940 sessions Rachmaninov had made an early electrical recording of his Etude-Tableau in A minor, Op 39, No 6. It was in December 1925, and at the same session he recorded his own transcription of Liebesfreud by Kreisler. Ever the perfectionist, Rachmaninov was not satisfied and returned to the studio on the 29 December to record a third take of each side. His later recording of this work, (displaying a cast iron technique only a year before his death) the Bach transcriptions and the transcription of his song Lilacs come from his very last sessions which took place in February 1942 in Hollywood where he was then living.

© 2012 Jonathan Summers

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