Friday, April 1, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr. Rachmaninoff

Sergei Vassilievich Rachmaninoff (for his last name, I use the spelling the composer himself preferred) was born on this date in 1873. He excelled as a pianist, conductor, and composer – although his mastery of the last of these has only been acknowledged over the last few decades – and he still endures condescension from some. The Groves Dictionary's curt dismissal of the composer ("The enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninoff’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last..."), has been proven doubly wrong - not only are the popular chestnuts, the Second Symphony, Second Concerto and Prelude in C-sharp minor as popular as ever, but other works such as the Symphonic Dances and The Bells have entered the standard repertoire. Oh well, Groves hasn't had the best track record anyway.

Here are recording recommendations for many of his best known, and some not as well known, works. This is a personal list, which reflects my favorite recordings, and offers no pretense that these are the “best” or “definitive” versions. I have long since disavowed myself from the notion that music as oft-recorded and performed as this can ever have a “final” statement. As usual, I limit myself to a maximum of two recommendations per work (except for the Op. 36 Sonata which exists in different versions) and place the value of the performance before that of the sound quality, so many of these are historical recordings:

Op. 1 – Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor:
Byron Janis/Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner/RCA
Krystian Zimerman/Boston Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa/DG

Op. 3 – Five Morceaux de Fantasie:
Ruth Laredo/Sony
(This opus also contains the infamous Prelude in C-sharp minor. The composer made several indispensable recordings of this piece which are on RCA.)

Op. 7 – The Rock:
Mikhail Pletnev/Russian National Orchestra/DG
Lorin Maazel/Berlin Philharmonic/DG

Op. 13 – Symphony No. 1 in D minor:
Vladimir Askkenazy/Concertgebow Orchestra/Decca-London
Mikhail Pletnev/Russian National Orchestra/DG

Op. 16 – Six Moments Musicaux:
Lazar Berman/DG
Ruth Laredo/Sony

Op. 17 – Suite No. 2 for two pianos:
Martha Argerich & Nelson Friere/Phillips
Vitya Vronsky & Victor Babin/RCA (not available on CD)

Op. 18 – Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor:
Sergei Rachmaninoff/Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (1924 recording, made on a beautiful Mason & Hamlin piano)
Stephen Hough/Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton/Hyperion

Op. 19 – Sonata for Cello and Piano in F minor:
Edmund Kurtz & William Kapell/RCA;
Yo-Yo Ma & Emanuel Ax/Sony

Op. 22 – Variations on a Theme of Chopin:
Jorge Bolet/Decca-London
Earl Wild/Chesky

Op. 23 – Ten Preludes:
Vladimir Ashkenazy/Decca-London
Earl Wild/Chesky
(There are also distinguished recordings of various preludes by Sviatoslav Richter, Horowitz, and the composer himself.)

Op. 27 – Symphony No. 2:
Ivan Fisher/Budapest Festival Orchestra/Channel Classics
Mikhail Pletnev/Russian National Orchestra/DG
(There are other fine versions, such as Ormandy’s Philadelphia recording with Columbia Sokoloff’s Cleveland Orchestra recording on Brunswick – which was the world premiere recording – but I disqualify those from my list as they are cut.)

Op. 28 – Piano Sonata in D minor:
Ruth Laredo/Sony Alexis Weissenberg/DG

Op. 29 – The Isle of the Dead:
Sergei Rachmaninoff/Philadelphia Orchestra/RCA
Vladimir Ashkenazy/Concertgebow Orchestra/Decca-London

Op. 30 – Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor:
Vladimir Horowitz/RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/Fritz Reiner
Van Cliburn/Symphony of the Air/Kiril Kondrashin

Op. 32 – Thirteen Preludes:
Vladimir Ashkenazy/Decca-London Ruth Laredo/Sony
(Again, distinguished recordings of various Preludes have been made by Richter, Horowitz, and Weissenberg, and the composer.)

Op. 33 – Eight Etudes-Tableaux:
Vladimir Ashkenazy/Decca-London
(Authorized and non-authorized recordings of several of these on several labels by Richter are worth seeking out. Horowitz’s recording of the C major [from 1962] should be part of any piano library.)

Op. 35 – The Bells:
Kiril Kondrashin/Moscow Philharmonic/RCA
Vladimir Ashkenazy/Concertgebow Orchestra/Decca-London

Op. 36 – Piano Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 36:
Original 1913 version: Van Cliburn/RCA
Revised 1931 version: Jean-Yves Thibaudet/Decca-London
Fusion version: Vladimir Horowitz (Sony, 1968) (From an architectural point of view, Horowitz’s fusion of the original and revised versions is the best compromise between the rambling original and eviscerated revised versions.)

Op. 37 - All-Night Vigil (Vespers):
Karl Dent/Robert Shaw Festival Singers/Robert Shaw/Telarc

Op. 39 – Nine Etudes-Tableaux:
Vladimir Ashkenazy/Decca-London
(Kissin recorded several of the Op. 39 for RCA during his early years – fragrant, colorful performances. Horowitz’s recordings of the C minor [from 1945] E-flat minor [1962] and D major [1967] are indispensable.)

Op. 40 – Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor:
Sergei Rachmaninoff/Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy;
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli/Philharmonia Orchestra/Ettore Gracis/EMI

Op. 42 – Variations on a Theme of Corelli:
Andre Watts/Columbia (shamefully, Sony has never issued this on CD, but it is available as part of Phillips’ Great Pianists of the 20th Century series)
Jean-Yves Thibaudet/Decca-London

Op. 43 – Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini:
Benno Moiseiwitsch/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Basil Cameron/Naxos
William Kapell/Robin Hood Dell Orchestra/Fritz Reiner/RCA

Op. 44 Symphony No. 3 in A minor:
Sergei Rachmaninoff/Philadelphia Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski/National Philharmonic Orchestra/Newton

Op. 45 – Symphonic Dances:
Kiril Kondrashin/Moscow Philharmonic/RCA;
Vladimir Ashkenazy/Concertgebow Orchestra/Decca-London
(Honorable mention goes to the stellar rendition of the two piano version by Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire on DG. RCA scandalously declined to record the composer himself with Horowitz in this piece.)



Hi, Hank !
Your recording recommendations of Rachmaninoff's most famous works is spot-on. I was surprised, though, with your choice of the Horowitz/Reiner version for the Rach 3, because if memory serves me right, in one of your Amazon reviews you seemed to prefer the 1978 Horowitz/Ormandy rendition, even calling it your "desert island favourite". Have you changed your mind over this or is my recollection flawed ?
Best regards, Carlos

Hank Drake said...

Hi Carlos.

I feel a great psychic tug-of-war between the Horowitz/Ormandy and the Horowitz/Reiner - and my preference changes daily!

One thing about those 1978 Rachmaninoff Thirds - the Golden Jubilee is one of the weaker performances from that year. The televised version with Mehta (due to be reissued on DVD on DG later this year) is head & shoulders above the Golden Jubilee performance - a more balanced interpretation. Then the Ann Arbor performance (pirate recording) with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra is sky high above both. Horowitz is really ON that day: a very tight, integrated performance. You would swear you were listening to the 1951 Reiner - but with a better orchestra and no cuts!

Anonymous said...


I am looking for a "clean" Orchestral recording of Rachmaninov's Prelude in G Minor. I have two versions already: Andre Kostelanetz - nice tempo but scratchy recording and London Promenade Orch. - a little slower tempo. I will be choreographing a full evening work in the fall. The ballet will be performed live but will also tour to tape. So I need good recordings. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
Best Regards, Mark