Rachmaninoff – Transcriptions and Original Pieces – Vladimir Ashkenazy – DECCA

ashrach.jpgSergei Rachmaninoff

Transcriptions
Johann Sebastian Bach : Prelude, Gavotte and Gigue from Partita in E major for solo violin, BWV 1006
Franz Schubert “Wohin?” from Die schöne Müllerin
Felix Mendelssohn: Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Georges Bizet: Minuet from L’Arlésienne Suite No 1
Modest Mussorgsky : Hopak from Sorochintsy Fair
Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky Lullaby, Op 16 no 1
Polka de W.R.
Rachmaninoff Lilacs, Op 21 no 5; Daisies, Op 38 no 3
Fritz Kreisler Liebeslied; Liebesfreud
John Stafford Smith The Star-Spangled Banner
Original compositions
Six Morceaux, Op 11 for piano, four hands
Waltz and Romance for piano, six hands
Italian Polka for piano, four hands, and trumpet
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano
with Vovka Ashkenazy,  Dody Ashkenazy, piano, Alastair Mackie (trumpet)
DECCA 289 470 291
[78:43] full price

Sergei Rachmaninoff
TranscriptionsJohann Sebastian Bach : Prelude, Gavotte and Gigue from Partita in E major for solo violin, BWV 1006Franz Schubert “Wohin?” from Die schöne MüllerinFelix Mendelssohn: Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s DreamGeorges Bizet: Minuet from L’Arlésienne Suite No 1Modest Mussorgsky : Hopak from Sorochintsy FairPyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky Lullaby, Op 16 no 1Polka de W.R.Rachmaninoff Lilacs, Op 21 no 5; Daisies, Op 38 no 3Fritz Kreisler Liebeslied; LiebesfreudJohn Stafford Smith The Star-Spangled BannerOriginal compositionsSix Morceaux, Op 11 for piano, four handsWaltz and Romance for piano, six handsItalian Polka for piano, four hands, and trumpet
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano
with Vovka Ashkenazy,  Dody Ashkenazy, piano, Alastair Mackie (trumpet)DECCA 289 470 291
[78:43] full price

This disc is a treasure trove for several reasons.  The first is Vladimir Ashkenazy’s playing, which is light-years removed from his usually solid, sometimes poetic but middle-of-the-road approach.  The poetic and bittersweet touches Ashkenazy brings to Rachmaninoff are all there, but heightened with an immediacy and freshness.  Add to that plenty of steeliness in the fingers with lightning-bolt-like electricity and quickness coursing through them, and you get the first disc in a very long time that comes anywhere close to his first recording of the Chopin etudes.

Then there is the music.  Most of the pieces are transcriptions Rachmaninoff penned between 1923 and 1941 for his own use at the keyboard. They are bon-bons for the audience – light, up-beat and a lot of fun to hear – a side of Rachmaninoff not heard as often in his own compositions – but not for the faint-of-heart, pianistically speaking.  Rachmaninoff said of them, “I wrote them easily and happily,” and that joy permeates all but one of these inventive works.

The exception is Rachmaninoff’s transcription of his mentor Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby.  Put on paper in 1941, shortly after the Germans had invaded Russia, it was the last music Rachmaninoff wrote, and the composer’s wistfulness and heartache for his homeland is keenly felt.  (Rachmaninoff recorded the Lullaby in 1942, in what would prove to be his final recording sessions.  Technically, the recording is fabulous, with a continual singing line and incredibly wide range of tone color.  Interpretively, its emotional directness makes the performance all the more wrenching.  Altogether, it is perhaps four minutes of the finest pianism ever recorded, as well as a haunting musical last will and testament.)

Rachmaninoff was a masterly transcriber, adept at keeping the basic flavor of the music while spicing it up with his own harmonic and contrapuntal touches.  The suite he assembled from three movements of the Bach E-major violin partita sparkles and shines with a baroque flame, but the chromatic glass through which that flame radiates is definitely not Bach.  Yet nothing really feels out of place; everything is tastefully done, even as Rachmaninoff’s chromatic web-spinning grows denser and more intricate.

Ashkenazy’s strongest competition in playing these works is from the composer himself, who recorded several of these arrangements for RCA.  While Rachmaninoff’s version of Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby is perhaps the last word on that piece, Ashkenazy stacks up pretty well in the other works they both play.  Ruth Laredo recorded these transcriptions for her complete Rachmaninoff set in the 1970s but is no competition here.  The only other Rachmaninoff transcription disc that comes close to this one – and it is no relation in the works that are played – is Earl Wild’s recording of his own transcriptions of Rachmaninoff songs (once on Dell’Arte – could an Ivory reissue be pending?).  Wild’s transcriptions are showier than Rachmaninoff’s but no less faithful to their source, and one of them, Dreamsfrom the Op 38 set, is as mesmerizing as Daisies (above) or Lilacs in the composer’s arrangements.

The original pieces that complete the disc are rarities that fill a gap for Rachophiles and are a pleasure to hear in themselves.  Written for the hone and not the concert stage or recital hall, these four- and six-hand works become an Ashkenazy family affair, with son Vovka pairing with dad for the Op 11 Morceaux and wife Dódy joining in for the Waltz and Romance for piano six-hands.  The opening of the Romance will sound extremely familiar, as Rachmaninoff reused it in the Second Piano Concerto for the opening of the second movement.  The Italian Polka must have been a great party piece, with a quirky trumpet part weaving like a vodka-filled guest among the piano parts.

This whole disc is truly a celebration – Rachmaninoff after he finished a recital program, when he would finally smile from the piano bench and play to the galleries.  What a joy to be a part of that audience once again, even if by proxy, with Ashkenazy beaming as he relaxes and plays, it would seem, just for us.

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