About this Recording
8.111413 - RACHMANINOV, Sergey: Piano Solo Recordings, Vol. 6 - Victor Recordings (1922-1924)

Great Pianists: Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873–1943)
Solo Piano Recordings Volume 6 • The Victor Recordings, 1922–24


Sergey Rachmaninov was born in Novgorod, Russia, in 1873. After studies with a few local teachers, his cousin, Alexander Siloti (1863–1945), arranged for him to go to the Moscow Conservatory to study with Nikolai Zverev, a renowned disciplinarian. In fact, Rachmaninov and two other boys lived with Zverev under a strict regime of rigorous practice. However, in this environment the young Rachmaninov met and heard the greatest musicians of the time including Anton Rubinstein, Anton Arensky, Sergey Taneyev and Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky.

At the age of 15, 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 debut in 1909 playing his newly written Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30. The years up to the First World War were taken up with touring, performing and composing, and in 1914 Rachmaninov toured southern Russia with Serge Koussevitzky giving concerts for the war effort. However, at the end of 1917 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.

It was at the end of 1918 that Rachmaninov went to America and gave 40 concerts to raise funds to buy a home. Edison was the first to entice him into the recording studio in April 1919 but the lack of agreement over the terms of his contract with Edison made Rachmaninov sign with the Victor Talking Machine Company a year later in April 1920. Rachmaninov stayed with Victor for the rest of his career.

All the discs on this Volume 6 of Rachmaninov’s complete recordings were made by the acoustic process. No electricity was involved and the sound of the piano was captured by a horn attached to a stylus fixed to a membrane which inscribed the sound waves onto a wax blank. During the 1920s all of the major recording companies were experimenting with recorded sound and each year slight improvements were made.

As can be seen from the repertoire that Rachmaninov selected, during the acoustic era short pieces were recorded on single sides of discs or, more uncommonly, split between two sides (as with the Scherzo in C sharp minor by Chopin that was not issued at the time). It was rare therefore to find a recording of an extended work such as a piano concerto. HMV in England recorded their first complete, unabridged recording of a piano concerto in 1922 when they invited Liszt pupil Frederic Lamond to record Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto. It was difficult to record an orchestra without inauthentic substituting of instruments or to get reasonable balance between instruments and soloist. More importantly from a business sense, the cost to the purchaser of a large set of 78rpm discs was high. Obviously, Victor wanted to record their star pianist in his most famous and popular concerto, so on 3 January 1924 Rachmaninov went into the studio with Victor’s star conductor and orchestra, Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra. It seems that Victor had worked out that they could record the second movement on three twelve-inch sides and the third movement on three more making a set of six sides to be issued as three discs.

However, by the end of 1924 Bell Telephone Laboratories had developed the Western Electric recording process known as Westrex. Victor knew of this when they recorded Rachmaninov in the first movement of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in December 1924 as they decided to licence the process, making their first electrical recording in February 1925. As soon as these new electrical recordings with noticeably improved sound were unleashed on the public, the old back catalogue of acoustic discs became obsolete almost overnight. Hence, Rachmaninov’s recordings made in December 1924 (the first movement of the Concerto and Le Cygne) were not issued. Another curious factor that could have prevented release was the decision to record the first movement on two twelve-inch sides and one ten-inch side. Presumably, the first movement would have been united with the other two in an album set, but this never happened. It should be said that in 1930 and 1931 Parlophone recorded Moriz Rosenthal in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and issued that in an album on assorted ten- and twelve-inch discs.

When the complete Rachmaninov recordings were issued for the first time on LP (to commemorate his centenary in 1973) only the two twelve-inch sides of the previously unpublished first movement of the 1924 Concerto recording could be found, so the end of the movement (the ten-inch side) was substituted using the later 1929 recording. The producers of the 1973 issue had probably not realised that the third side was a ten-inch disc. When Ward Marston was asked to make new transfers for release on CD in 1992 he had recently discovered that the third side was a ten-inch master and this was duly located in the Victor archive. At the time he chose to use the second takes of the two-twelve inch sides but for this new Naxos issue the surviving first takes of the sides are also included, receiving their premiere release.

Victor was keen to have the composer-pianist recorded in his own compositions that would have popular appeal, so two works from his Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3 were selected. On 1 November 1922, Rachmaninov recorded three takes of the Sérénade, but not being satisfied, recorded two more on 4 November from which take five was issued. The composer was also not happy with the recording he made of the Polichinelle o n 2 0 October 1920 but a subsequent take recorded three years later on 6 March 1923 was passed for release. It was during a visit to Moscow in the early months of 1893 that Rachmaninov presented a copy of his new Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3 to Tchaikovsky, the second piece of the set becoming the world-famous Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2. Tchaikovsky died later that year and Rachmaninov wrote his Trio élégiaque, Op. 9—in memory of the composer of whom he said, ‘Of all the people and artists whom I have had occasion to meet, Tchaikovsky was the most enchanting. His delicacy of spirit was unique. He was modest like all truly great men and simple as only very few are. Of all those I have known, only Chekhov was like him.’ Rachmaninov recorded a few short piano works by Tchaikovsky in the acoustic period—an incisive Humoresque, Op. 10, No. 2 and the charming Waltz in A flat, No. 8 of twelve pieces Op. 40.

Also, at the 1 November 1922 session, Rachmaninov recorded one of Moritz Moszkowski’s popular encore pieces La Jongleuse, but, as was now common for him, seven attempts over four dates were required before he was satisfied. Indeed, Rachmaninov’s perfectionism is clear from the efforts he took to record his own transcription of his song Lilacs as twelve takes were recorded over three years from which take nine was issued.

Although a prolific composer, Adolf von Henselt stopped composing by the age of 30. Today his Piano Concerto is occasionally recorded, but in the early years of the 20th century, the sixth of his 12 Études caractéristiques, Op. 2, ‘Si oiseau j’étais’ (‘If I were a bird’) was very popular and was also recorded by Leopold Godowsky, Benno Moiseiwitsch and Eileen Joyce. Although not a taxing étude for a pianist of Rachmaninov’s capabilities, this étude in sixths took him seven takes from which take five was issued.

Short works of Chopin were ideally suited to the time constraints of the ten- and twelve-inch 78 rpm disc. Waltzes, Études and Mazurkas could fit comfortably on a single side. Many of Rachmaninov’s very first recordings for Victor were not issued and he remade them a few years later in 1922 and 1923, hence the high take numbers of the Chopin sides included here. Rachmaninov takes some liberties with Chopin’s rhythms in the middle section of the F sharp Nocturne and the opening statement of the Scherzo in C sharp minor, although it is a wonderful performance notwithstanding.

The previously mentioned recording of Le Cygne by Saint-Saëns is in a piano transcription by Rachmaninov’s cousin Alexander Siloti. The recording was destroyed, but a test pressing somehow escaped and turned up in a junk store in Brooklyn in the 1960s where it was bought by a collector. It now resides in the collection of the International Piano Archives at Maryland having been donated by Ward Marston, enabling it to be heard by everyone.

© 2020 Jonathan Summers

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