RACHMANINOFF: Prelude in C-sharp Minor; Piano Concerto No. 2; Symphony No. 3 – Cyril Smith, p./ London Sym. Orch. (Prelude)/ Liverpool Philharmonic Orch. (Concerto)/ BBC Sym. Orch./ Sir Malcolm Sargent – Guild

RACHMANINOFF: Prelude in C-sharp Minor (arr. Sargent); Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18; Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44 – Cyril Smith, p./ London Sym. Orch. (Prelude)/ Liverpool Philharmonic Orch. (Concerto)/ BBC Sym. Orch./ Sir Malcolm Sargent – Guild GHCD 2423, 76:38 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

The present all-Rachmaninoff compilation stretches across some twenty years, 1931 (Prelude) to 1953 (Symphony No. 3), embracing some fine work led by Sir Malcolm Sargent (1895-1967) with various British ensembles.  Cyril Smith (1909-1974), a strong British piano virtuoso trained under Tobias Matthay, made a career of interpreting Rachmaninoff’s music, especially in the period 1938-1955, when he presented concertos by that master sixteen times at the Proms concerts. A debilitating stroke in 1956 limited his work to “three-hand” pieces in concert with his wife Phyllis Sellick.  Curiously, Smith performed the C Minor Concerto only once at Proms, in 1950.  Given the fluidity and seamless intimacy of the present recording (12-13 June 1947), we would have expected more numerous renditions.

Sargent begins with his own transcription for HMV – a la Stokowski – of the eternal C-sharp Minor Prelude (24 September 1931).  As a symphonic expression of the composer’s “signature piece” the effect remains potent and colorful, especially given Sargent’s own expertise at the keyboard, upon which he several times appeared as soloist in the very same concerto, which he recorded a second time later, with Moura Lympany.

The Concerto performance has many glowing qualities to recommend it, not the least of which, its zestful, intimate polish, proves compelling.  The second movement Adagio sostenuto, with its dramatic periods taken from the Chopin F Minor Concerto as its model – rings with lyrical and aristocratic authority. Smith’s ravishing tone color, his poignant diminuendi, add to an intelligent, poised sense of the romantic gesture infused in this reading. Perhaps the presence of Benno Moiseiwitsch in Britain at the time influenced this evocative and stately interpretation. The outer movements convey the often spectacular momentum both pianist and conductor could command when properly motivated. The grandly intimate theme of the last movement, played slowly and intensely, swells to a grand climax that well suits the composer’s notion of “the point.” The martial progressions run like fire, authoritative and boldly etched, especially in the Liverpool strings and winds.  The extended coda breathes lava, and the piano filigree has rarely received such voluptuous realization, a real revival of this performance which once graced the Columbia LP: ML 4176.

Sir Malcolm Sargent took on the unfairly neglected Rachmaninoff Third Symphony as early as 1948, while the music had not made much headway with the popular audiences. Having led the work five times between 1948 and 1953 with the BBC, the conductor and his players well knew the score for the recording of 5 May 1953. The essential romance of the first movement Allegro moderato emerges, in spite of its rather “Hollywood” treatment in terms of panoramic colors – from muted cellos – with a sense of dignity. Neither Sargent nor Rachmaninoff – in his 1939 Philadelphia recording – observes the first movement repeat. We detect hints of Rachmaninoff’s ubiquitous Dies Irae in the more percussive, stentorian passages, no less obligated to Russian doxology.

The Adagio ma non troppo basks in the “oriental” languor Rachmaninoff learned from compatriot Rimsky-Korsakov. The combination of strings and harp, given the lush orchestration, would under more favorable perceptions of this work, guarantee its appearance at concert halls. Individual, lyric episodes appear before the skittish scherzando occupies the space prior to the grand finale, Allegro. Typically, Rachmaninoff reminds us that “in the midst of life we are in death.” Despite the assertive energy Sargent infuses into his reading, we still feel the music derivative of formulas Rachmaninoff has exploited too often, especially when the full scale Requiem Mass trope rears up.  Even the fugato resonates with nods to the E Minor Symphony, the composer’s most successful large score. Still, Sargent remains a true believer, and his performances convey the magic of the initiated.

—Gary Lemco

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