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RACHMANINOV plays RACHMANINOV = The Four Piano Concertos; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 – Serge Rachmaninov, piano/ The Philadelphia Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski (Concerto No. 2; Rhapsody)/ Eugene Ormandy – Pristine PASC 544 (2 Discs) TT: 2 hr 17:25 [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:

Mark Obert-Thorn assembles the complete Rachmaninov concerted works for piano and orchestra, recorded 1929-1941 at the two venues of the Academy of Music, Philadelphia and the Church Studio No. 2 in Camden, New Jersey (for the Rhapsody). Obert-Thorn had contributed to this same project for Naxos Historical in 1999 (8.110601/2).  If any one document might attest to the composer’s own gifts at the keyboard, I suggest a hearty audition of the Allegro scherzando last movement of the Concerto No. 1, Op. 1 (rec. December 1939/February 1940), written when Rachmaninov was a student of Taneyev in 1891 but revised in 1917.  The astonishing élan of the performance, not to mention the adept metric switch from 9/8 to 12/8 in blistering octaves, indicate the degree Rachmaninov had accommodated the Tchaikovsky ethos into his own, demonic expression. The Concerto No. 4 in G Major (1926; rev. 1941) always plays the “outcast” of the concertos, given its dry, acerbic syntax, much in the style of its dedicatee Nikolay Medtner.  When we consider that the work’s premiere in March 1927 occurred with Stokowski, we feel some sorrow Stokowski does not appear in the recording, and it seems there exists no document of his participation in this piece. Rachmaninov provides a sturdy, if restrained interpretation in accord with its laconic classicism; so it seems fitting that the Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli/Ettore Gracis performance retains its hegemony here. The first movement takes its cue from the Etude-tableau in C minor, Op. 33, No. 3 (1914).  Rachmaninov utilizes figures from his “Red Riding Hood” Etude-Tableau in A minor to breeze through the last movement, which in its recall of movement one, achieves a loosely cyclical unity for this ever-elusive concerto. Rachmaninov’s capacity to embrace huge spans while producing a sensitive, singing tone continues to mesmerize us with his direct, pointed musicianship.

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (rec. 24 December 1934) does feature Stokowski at the podium but leading a reduced ensemble that plays the entire piece in one take; and so. Despite some sonic cramping, the performance has a natural drive and buoyancy. Fond as he was of Liszt’s Totentanz, that Rachmaninov capitalizes on the Dies Irae sequence from the Requiem Mass hardly surprises us.  Deft an ravishing scale passages, balanced phrasing, and a blissfully lush melodic line all belong to Rachmaninov the pianist, and no metric flight of fancy betrays the slightest jar in the musical motion. The RCA engineers of the period had dual cutters running at different speeds to segue from the limited shellac time per side, fading and boosting the volumes as required.  Obert-Thorn calls the work of linking the sides together for this transfer “challenging.” Listen for the wonderful string “wind tone” Stokowski elicits from the orchestra just prior to the transition to the ubiquitous Variation 18.

Portrait Serbei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff

The 1909 Piano Concerto No. 3 in d Minor, Op. 30 (rec. 4 December 1939 and 24 February 1940), besides its release on 78 rpm as M-710, had a brief incarnation as an LP as LM 2051, a point I had to argue with a salesman at Sam Goody.  When we consider that the premiere of this concerto occurred in New York City under the orchestral direction of Gustav Mahler, we intuit some awe for the significance of the music, besides its appearance in various cinematic adventures.  Rachmaninov takes the somewhat liturgical opening theme, Allegro ma non tanto, at a brisk pace, a tune that provides much of all subsequent development. The transition offers elements of the lyrical, secondary motif that strings, winds and horns elucidate in the patented Philadelphia sound. Rachmaninov chooses to record the abbreviated cadenza rather than the massive alternative that pianists favor these days. What makes this performance special lies in the artist’s shaping of phrase architecture, as well as the natural fluency of his melodic line.  Rachmaninov and Ormandy build some fine tensions in the first movement, including the fine flute, oboe, and horn work that gathers in the orchestra after the cadenza. The compressed recapitulation features some brilliant, upper register filigree from our distinguished soloist. The A Major Intermezzo: Adagio bears thematic resemblance to movement one, and it contains a scherzo-valse interlude that alludes to the first movement by way of clarinet and bassoon. Another cadenza has Rachmaninov sail into the Finale: Alla breve, another  case of transformation of theme a la Liszt, here in four tunes derived from movement one, with added syncopation and bravura. Unfortunately, some of the orchestral definition suffers from the microphone placement nearer to the keyboard. But the diverse gallops, scintillating runs, expressive parlando, and massive block chords that Rachmaninov controls as his own soloist warrant our sustained awe.

The ubiquitous 1901 Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (rec. 10, 13 April 1929) comes as a “progressive” result of several prior recording sessions, as early as 1923-1924, and that acoustic document’s having been preserved by Pristine (PASC 471). The 1929 recording permits the full complement of Philadelphia players to access the electronic process, and the performance supported multiple takes, of which the composer’s preferences make their appearance here. The potent bell-tones that open the concerto Rachmaninov takes briskly, and the Philadelphia strings and he soon lull us into the secondary theme in E-flat Major. Rachmaninov and Stokowski will develop to a powerful climax to return to the central subject, Maestoso. When the huge sweep of sound subsides, an air of wrenching (string) nostalgia ensues before the coda.

The Adagio sostenuto traverses C minor and E Major—shades of Beethoven—with prominent figures in flute and clarinet. Following the example of the Chopin F minor Concerto, the music becomes animated and tense, followed by Rachmaninov’s cadenza with its penchant for repeated notes and sweeping arpeggios, soon to allow the orchestra back by virtue of the romance of the opening theme. The Allegro scherzando, a rondo, bursts forth in martial C minor,  with Rachmaninov in full throttle, when oboe and viola announce a new theme, Moderato. The big theme has Stokowski’s slight tugging at the metrics, but the romance loses no legitimacy. The rhapsodic treatment allows for some counterpoint in its development, along with any number of multifarious harmonies and colors. Typical of the Russian romantics, Rachmaninov invites the grand apotheosis in C Major, heartfelt and towering in majestic bliss.

—Gary Lemco

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