RACHMANINOV The Second Piano Concerto: Recordings Survey Part 3 (Historic) – INKPOT
PART 1 Rubinstein/Reiner (RCA) | Rösel/Sanderling (Berlin) | Rudy/Jansons (EMI)
PART 2 Anievas/Atzmon (EMI) | Richter/Wislocki (DG) | Ashkenazy/Previn (Decca) Thibaudet/Ashkenazy (Decca) | Entremont/Bernstein (Sony) | Cliburn/Reiner (RCA)
PART 3 (HISTORIC) Rubinstein/Golschmann (RCA) | Gieseking/Mengelberg (Music & Arts) |
Compared to his later recording with Fritz Reiner, Artur Rubinstein’s interpretation in the Rachmaninov Second Concerto is still business-like, with little inclination to linger over the melodies, even in the adagio. But though Rubinstein can seem clipped and brisk, he is not unduly pressed, as he would later be with Reiner, and that makes a world of difference in his playing. (For an even greater difference in Rubinstein’s playing, see the review below of his 1949 ‘live’ recording with Serge Koussevitsky and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.)
What Rubinstein lacks in languor, he makes up for in fire, playing with swagger and dash in the outer movements, and sweeping all before him with an imperious command of the music. His golden tone is well-captured, as is an electricity that surfaced more often in his concerts and early recordings than it would later on. The notes do not sparkle, but snap and crackle from the voltage running through them.
Even so, this is not entirely a slam-bam run-through of the piece. Though Rubinstein does not show himself to be the most Romantically tender of interpreters, he still shows in the quieter sections that he knows how to caress a phrase and seduce the lyricism out of it, as well as heighten mystery and slowly build tension when needed.
That said, I wish the players would have taken more time with the adagio and the lyrical sections of the finale – the music in those sections still passes by a little too quick and matter-of-fact for my taste, robbing it of atmosphere and passion – but the playing by Rubinstein, Vladimir Golschmann and the NBC Symphony is undeniably ardent.
The sound is extremely clear and well-defined in this remastering, almost belying its mono origins, and the digital restoration as a whole is superb.
Best known for his outstanding Debussy and Ravel, Walter Gieseking was equally persuasive in Rachmaninov, as the recordings here indicate. He was also not inclined to practice and had a tendency to become caught up in the heat of the performance, which accounts for some blurred and wrong notes and sloppy passagework. But in terms of overall sweep and visceral impact, these are recordings that must be heard to be believed.
A great deal of the excitement in these performances stems from the partnership of Gieseking and Willem Mengelberg. While collaboration is not alien to recordings of Rachmaninov’s works, instances of soloist and conductor goading each other to acts of musical brinksmanship are far less common. Their reading of the Second Concerto is passionate, dramatic and highly volatile, with passages such as in the strings-and-piano section of the first movement beginning at 5:18 becoming positively Vesuvian.
At the same time, the performance does not denigrate into a musical slugfest. Lyricism is never shorted. Gieseking’s playing of the second theme in the first movement is finely chiseled and sensitively phrased, and the quieter moments here and in the Adagio glow with half-lights and seductive tone colors. Mengelberg leads equally alluring support, with a lustrous horn solo at 7:22 of the first movement and luminous string work following that. The orchestral playing in the adagio is a model of great delicacy and impeccable ensemble work.
After the calm of the andante, Gieseking’s entrance at the start of the finale sounds like a shriek from hell itself, as quickly as he plays it. Mengelberg matches him in speed, and both slow deliciously for the “Full Moon and Empty Arms” episodes. But in the brief cadenza leading to the climax, Gieseking cannot seem to stop playing. Caught in the torrent of music, he extends the passagework, ending with a glissando to the top of the keyboard. Given the high temperature of the performance, it is a wonder the playing does not boil over more often.
Though I have not heard it, Audiophile Classics has issued a cleaner transfer of this performance coupled with the piano concerto of Max Trapp (in what may be its first commercial release) and Beethoven’s Egmont overture. With Music and Arts, you get Gieseking’s Rachmaninov Third with Mengelberg – another rip-roaring performance.
Artur Rubinstein before an audience was much more the fiery, volatile artist of yore than he was on recordings. Fortunately, this disc allows us the chance to hear him play the Rachmaninov Second Concerto ‘live’, and the difference between this and Rubinstein’s studio recordings of the work are staggering. (Another recording, with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski on Biddulph LHW041, has unfortunately gone out of print and was not available for review.)
The difference between this and the studio recordings is not simply a case of pianistic weights and measures, or of overall timings, which are only marginally slower. Rather, it is the dynamics of the performance itself that are markedly changed. Rubinstein is much freer and more animated in his playing, with a greater nimbleness of touch, more powerful fingers and a crisp rhythmic snap that threatens to give a listener whiplash. This is playing with a serious attitude – not just insouciant, but raring for a fight.
Even more surprising – and welcome – is the interpretive change that takes place. Temperament rises audibly to the fore, with Rubinstein kindling hotter flames in the dramatic moments, greater warmth and lingering over lyrical moments, and a greater degree of uncertainty over what is gong to happen next. As much as Rubinstein tries to speed away, he is just as often hanging back, shaping the music with a liquid suppleness and never-ending variety of phrasings, making this concerto more unsettled and riveting than usual. As the announcer states, quoting one of the engineers, “No one can play like that, not even Rubinstein.” The equally hot-blooded Serge Koussevitsky and the Los Angeles Philharmonic give spirited support.
Since this recording is a radio aircheck, the sound does not have the fullness of a studio recording, but is remarkably clear and up-close with very little distortion. One unusual feature that adds to the archival quality of the recording is that the announcer’s comments for the original radio broadcast of this program were left intact. Since these comments are on separate tracks, it is easy to skip ahead or to program your player if you do not want to hear them.
A buoyant though at times frantic “Classical” Symphony precedes the Rachmaninov, and three solo encores follow it – Chopin’s A-flat Waltz and arrangements of Prokoviev’s March from The Love of Three Oranges and Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance. Though there is some scrambling and more than a few wrong notes in the Chopin, all three encores are played with the same commitment, volatility and continual variety of phrasing and touch as in the concerto. As they used to say about the best rides at Disneyland, this disc is definitely an “E” ticket attraction.
Leonard Pennario’s Rachmaninov Second is warmly romantic in tone without distorting the flow of the music. Tempi are moderate for performances today, though slightly more spacious than in most recordings of this work B.C. (Before Cliburn). Like Cliburn , Pennario takes the time to make passages sing and highlight inner voices, but his playing does not lapse into the languor that was the Texan pianist’s trademark.
Pennario’s fingerwork and rhythms stay crisply articulated, but he knows when to pull back or slow down to bring out the beauty of a passage, as he does near the end of the first movement. Even when he underlines passages in this way, he generally does so subtly, never compromising the music for the sake of cheap effects. There is an emotional honesty in his playing not unlike the composer’s own, which is shown to best advantage in the adagio. Nothing sentimental is allowed, no outright indulgences made, yet no emotion is slighted.
Vladimir Golschmann, a master at obtaining excellent results from less-than-first-rate ensembles, coaxes the strings to play with a silken elegance (even if they are stretched a little thin at times, as in the first movement climax). The brass is somewhat more troublesome at times, the woodwinds iffier – the clarinet solo at the beginning of the Adagio is especially thin-sounding, but the flutes near the end of that movement are perfectly fine. The sound picture, even with remastering, remains boxy and congested in climaxes, but is otherwise clear and perfectly listenable.
Before his extremely untimely death in 1953 and the subsequent ascent of Van Cliburn, William Kapell was considered the brightest star in the firmament of American pianists. Like a star, Kapell burned brightly, with a blazing technique and an equally fiery temperament.
He was especially noted for his Rachmaninov, and the intensity of Kapell’s playing in the Second Concerto is such that you almost expect flames to burst from beneath his fingers at any moment. Nor does Kapell short the lyricism in the quieter passages. The “Full Moon and Empty Arms” passages are played with a smoldering ardor that threatens to set the disc on fire, and his entry at the start of the adagio is nearly heart-rending.
The encores are an unusual mix. The Prelude in C sharp minor, predating the concerto by five years, is well-played but restless rather than atmospheric, and shows how much Kapell had grown by the time he recorded the concerto. We then get three Shostakovich preludes, recorded three months before the prelude, show Kapell a master at these quirky miniatures, with their strange humor and mercurial moods. It is too bad he did not live long enough to record either of that composer’s piano concertos.
RCA’s remastering is generally excellent, with virtually no background noise and a generally strong sound picture. The Shostakovich is slightly boxier in sound but also cleanly transferred. Highly recommended.
Sergei Rachmanonov was extremely proud to be the first composer to have all his works for piano and orchestra recorded for posterity, and for many years, this recording has been of immeasurable historical and interpretive benefit for performers and listeners alike. Rachmaninov is in splendid form, showing a remarkably high benchmark for other pianists to follow.
Moreover, the Naxos transfers, supervised by Marc Obert-Thorn, are easily the cleanest, best sounding ones made from these masters. They easily supplant the RCA CD and LP transfers made for the Rachmaninov centenary set, and set as high a standard for digital restoration as the players do in music making.
Rachmaninov plays the Second Concerto with a clear sense of forward momentum, giving the music a compelling pulse even as it is allowed to unfold naturally. He never drives the music, and sometimes emphasizes details in ways not used today. He plays the low F notes in the opening chords as grace notes, giving the chords a spring that would at first seem to dispel their bell-like tolling, but which gives the strings greater impact when they announce the opening theme.
He also gives an object lesson in the tasteful use of rubato in making the second theme of the first movement breathe with charm, mystery and passion without sacrificing the overall sense of forward movement. Stokowski’s accompaniment is equally riveting, both virile and sensitive, with wonderful solo playing and incredibly expressive string ensemble work. (Excerpt from the full review)
Do not let any thought of British reserve fool you for a minute. The Rachmaninov Second Concerto in Cyril Smith’s hands is fleet-fingered and gripping without becoming hard-edged or overdriven. Starting with a forceful, almost precipitous first movement that gives Julius Katchen’s performance a run for its money (those opening notes literally swagger forth), Smith gives the music a Horowitzian electricity.
He also makes the music refreshingly unpredictable. The agitated section of the Adagio leading into the Scherzando suddenly speeds up with a sudden rush of joy as though the pianist were running open-armed into a large, sunlit field. The bridge sections of the finale accelerate with a striding resolve where others tiptoe gingerly.
At the start of the finale, Smith holds back his speed in the soloist’s entry, heightening the tension. His articulation throughout this movement is razor-sharp, and he plays up the drama in the march sections not with speed, but with a forceful attack and tone. Even so, there is never an ugly-sounding moment, not one banged note throughout – only a sense of power and command.
Smith brings out the tender side of this music with equal insight, playing quieter moments such as the “Full Moon and Empty Arms” sections with hushed gentleness and terraced phrasing. His rubati in the beginning of the Adagio gives the music a gently rocking quality that works very well, and the unaffected songfulness and warm glow with which he invests the softer moments of the opening movement have seldom been equaled.
Sir Malcolm Sargent stays with Smith at every turn, giving lovingly phrased support (some overblowing by the horns five minutes into the adagio notwithstanding). His handling of the recapitulation in the Adagio is extraordinarily warm and gentle – not a reprieve of an earlier mood, but a tender consolation after the outburst of the Scherzando. The rapprochement between piano and orchestra that forms the final minute or so of this movement is extremely poignant. (Excerpt from the full review).
For any serious collector of Sergei Rachmaninov’s performances, as well as those interested on an artist’s second thoughts about a piece of music, this disc is extremely valuable. Mark Obert-Thorn, who supervised the sound restoration for this disc as well as the Naxos Historical set of Rachmaninov playing his concertos , explains in his notes that it was standard practice at RCA Victor to record each 78 RPM side of a recording two or three times, with one take approved for issue and a second placed on indefinite hold. However, during World War II, Victor replaced the worn-out approved takes of many of their more popular recordings with alternate takes.
With Rachmaninov’s performance of the Second Concerto, Victor replaced nine of the 10 sides. Only the original opening of the adagio was retained because no other take of that side had survived. Sometime between these substitutions and the first LP issue in 1952, the original artist’s file session sheet was replaced with one that implied that the substitute takes were the ones chosen for mastering. RCA did not reissue the original takes until 1988 in its 10-CD issue of “The Complete Rachmaninov” (even though the booklet for that set erroneously lists them as alternate takes).
The alternate and original takes are similar in general approach. However, numerous details arise that accrue to a substantially different performance – not really better than the approved takes, but with altered weights and measures – more impetuous in some spots and looser in others. Playing this disc and the Naxos side by side, I was amazed how the changes added up. Since Rachmaninov re-recorded very little of his music, this disc becomes a doubly-fascinating document, as well as a rare glimpse into the composer’s mind.
Richter’s ‘live’ Rachmaninov Second is one of the finest performances of this work yet made. The BMG/Melodiya issued it as part of its 10-disc Richter Edition is still available, but compared to the BMG/Melodiya Richter transfers I have heard, the Revelation is much cleaner. Revelation, which unearthed many recordings from the concert archives of the former Soviet Union, unfortunately no longer exists. However, residual copies of this disc are still available from time to time, especially on Internet sites such as mymusic.com (how I purchased my copy). If you come across it, grab it as soon as you can. Otherwise, the 10-disc BMG/Melodiya is your only option – not necessarily a bad thing if you want lots of Richter.
Compared to the mysticism of his DG recording, Richter’s playing here is deeply passionate, with a power and sweep that carries all before it. Also, though he does not slight the vertical aspect of Rachmaninov’s themes, Richter does not focus as intensely on that aspect of the score. After a hauntingly evocative opening, the music shows a greater sense of forward momentum in the first two movements, flowing forth more smoothly and easily than on DG. While the finale does not become the all-out rush that it did at times on that recording, it is perhaps more balanced and engaging, gaining in mystery in the bridge sections and in command in the march episodes.
Even with excellent remastering, the sound here is not as clear as it would perhaps have been in a studio (which is why this disc is here instead of in Part One of the overview). Still, it is amazing how much of the performance comes through – a tribute to Sanderling’s balancing of orchestral textures in making sure as much of the score as possible was heard, as well as to Richter’s care in projecting every nuance to the back of the hall without becoming strident or overpowering. The four solo pieces, dating from 1966, are in clearer, more close-up sound, making excellent encores that show Richter at his best.
The Rachmaninov recordings of Benno Moiseiwitsch, a friend and colleague of the composer, fully bear out his reputation as a supreme colorist at the keyboard. His playing of the Second Concerto is extremely imaginative, with his constantly highlighting and coloring inner voices in ways not even the composer had attempted, but doing so with consummate taste and in full service of the music.
Even in the opening measures, Moiseiwitsch evokes a number of different tones, as though we are hearing several church bells around us, softly tolling in the distance, growing louder as we gradually move closer to them. At the same time, no pianist has brought so strongly to mind an orchestra of cellos and bases while accompanying the strings in the main theme. He does so not only in the deep, rich texture he evokes from the keyboard, but in his shaping of the melodic line, as well.
Along with this coloration, Moiseiwitsch phrases his lines with an aristocratic elegance, and the music mirrors a natural vibrancy and freshness that stayed with the pianist virtually to the end of his career. His constant suppleness and singing tone – not only in the Adagio, but in places such as the first movement development – while constantly listening to and emulating the orchestra’s phrasing, is a joy to hear.
By an unhappy coincidence, Moiseiwitsch was scheduled to play the Second Concerto the day news arrived of Rachmaninov’s death. The pianist was terribly shaken by the news, and begged to be excused from the concert. After a great deal of pleading from the management, Moiseiwitsch acquiesced, on the conditions that there would be no rehearsal, he would perform in street clothes, and there would be no applause either before or after the concerto. After the performance, he played one encore – Chopin’s Funeral March – and left the stage in profound silence. (Excerpt from the full review)
Dame Moura Lympany’s handling of the opening of the Second Concerto is broader than was customary in the 1950s, but never drags. Lympany’s tone is deep and rich, with a smoothness and pliancy in phrasing that never undercuts the rhythmic impulses of the music. In short, this is gloriously lyrical playing. Those who thought Van Cliburn had cornered the market on this style of languid, almost operatically vocal style of pianism are in for quite a surprise.
At the same time, Lympany knows when to turn up the heat. When she does so, such as at the first movement climax, her tone becomes firmer without turning steely or clangorous, almost more like how a string player would intensify a passage through bowing rather than the more percussive way in which we usually hear a pianist increase the tension.
Her Adagio is splendid. Though the clarinet in the opening solo is not the more pleasant sounding, nothing could spoil the glowing quality of Lympany’s playing, with a legato that could literally go on forever – and just about does. There is a wonderful, conversational quality to this movement, as though she and Nicloai Malko are in intimate communication with one another. The only other recording I have heard this quality manifest to this extent was Martha Argerich’s Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto with Claudio Abbado , and like in that recording, the conversation here is both deeply touching and quietly thrilling.
881: 14.3.2001 Jonathan Yungkans
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