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Bryce Morrison
Gramophone, October 2009

Rachmaninov the pianist in dazzling performances, superbly remastered

How fascinating and instructive to return to legendary performances from the past, to find confirmation of greatness here, a lessening of enthusiasm there, to raise or lower an eyebrow. Here is a reminder and a remembrance of a matchless idiosyncrasy and mastery, particularly when discs dating from 1925–42 are so superbly remastered by Ward Marston (a vast improvement on RCA’s long-deleted l0-disc set of the complete recordings). Try this great pianist in Chopin’s E flat Nocturne, Op 9 No 2, played in the style of the greatest Russian singers, with a melting cantabile and with a freedom and rubato that can make even the ever-elfin Cherkassky sound sober by comparison. The Op 64 Waltz in A flat dances with a gossamer lightness while the Third Ballade seems improvised on the spot. Today, Rachmaninov’s operatic treatment of the Funeral March from the Second Sonata (his explosive return of the theme after the central Elysium) and his “winds whistling over graveyards” alternative to Chopin’s prescribed sotto voce in the finale may seem over-free, aberrations to be frowned on in our more puritan times. Yet even here you are conscious of a fierce musical integrity, one that scorns mere cleverness or difference for its own sake. The Scherzo from the same sonata has all of Rachmaninov’s astonishing propulsion and pungent rhythmic drive; and in the final pages of Schumann’s Carnaval the dancers are whirled into near oblivion. Rachmaninov could be gruff, tender, mordant (he includes “Sphinxes”, written in order to be ignored), dazzling, confiding and so much more. This is a superb first volume in what promises to be an invaluable series.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

Many would portray Sergey Rachmaninov as the most complete pianist we have known on disc, and these recordings, made between 1925 and 1942, would make it difficult to refute that description. His poetic licence and freedom in the shaping of phrases will be held up by today’s younger generation as an example of excess, though that would be to overlook the affection he places in every note that he plays. He had a very idiosyncratic approach to the group of Chopin works—including the best-known Waltzes—introducing so many unstated rallentandos and accelerandos. I expected him to take more chances in the opening movement of Chopin’s Second Sonata, but the hammered out theme of the final funeral march makes a powerful and dramatic statement. His approach to Schumann’s Carnaval is, in the nicest possible sense, capricious, his busy fingers unfailing in their accuracy, and dizzying in the quick sections, the finale an exhilarating exhibition of agility. Thus far these recordings for Victor date from the period 1925 to 1929 when he was at the height of his fame, but by 1942, when the final three tracks were made, he had become physically frail. Yet on that last recording day he gave scintillating performances of Tausig’s arrangement of Schumann’s song, Der Kontrabandiste, and the Liszt arrangement of two Chopin songs. Above all the disc shows that even in these relatively primitive days of recording, we can still hear the gorgeous tonal quality that has been so oft described in words. The restoration genius, Ward Marston, has again given us superb transfers, almost eliminating surface noise yet retaining the full sound spectrum.

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