Friday, April 9, 2010

Preview: Heart of the piano concerto, Part 2: Rachmaninoff's 2nd


The opening movement of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto works even if the soloist (Arkady Volodos here) doesn't have all that much imagination. Fortunately the movement (not quite complete -- these aren't exactly speedsters, and that introductory piffle runs the clock down) is nicely conducted by Riccardo Chailly.

by Ken

I explained recently how I was first exposed to Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto: via an RCA compilation LP called Heart of the Piano Concerto, which consisted of single movements from Arthur Rubinstein's then-most-recent RCA recordings of six popular piano concertos. It was the biting, driving Rondo finale of the Beethoven concerto that was included, and that had won my heart by the 50th or 60th playing.



MY SECOND-FAVORITE PIANO CONCERTO MOVEMENT WAS
THE OPENING OF RACHMANINOFF'S SECOND CONCERTO


And I can say that I love it too as much as I came to love it back then. Looking back, I find it curious that when it came to the agonizing issue of actually buying a recording of the complete concerto -- agonizing because in those innocent days I imagined myself buying only one recording of each work I collected -- I didn't buy the Rubinstein-Reiner recording. I wonder why. Maybe because I already had a third of it? (But that was in mono. Yes, the copy that found its way into the family LP collection was mono, because at the time we were a strictly mono family. I didn't enter the stereo era until I acquired my Westinghouse portable record player, with detachable speakers.) [UPDATE: I should perhaps have made clear that while the photo above is of a mono copy of the LP, it's not my family mono copy. The one in the picture is a British issue.]

The recording of the Rachmaninoff Second that I did finally buy after all that agony, for which I had to pay a premium because the list price of imported Deutsche Grammophon LPs was a dollar higher than regular LPs in those days, which usually translated to 50 cents at the retail level, if you bought everything on the special weekly sales at Sam Goody or Korvette's, the way I did), remains, as it happens, my favorite recording of the piece, and since I actually do have it on CD, we're going to hear it Sunday -- assuming I can find it. (It's "at large" at the moment.)

The concerto's opening is given over to the soloist: a series of eight bell-like chords, each with a bass after-bell, beginning softly (pp) and getting steadily louder, that can turn a listener -- this listener, anyway -- to emotional jelly. Here is the very performance I heard so frequently on Heart of the Piano Concerto, only now (finally!) in stereo.


RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18:
i. Moderato; Allegro


Arthur Rubinstein, piano; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Jan. 9, 1956

If we're going to hear the movement again (and we are), who better to listen to than the composer himself? Rachmaninoff was one of the supreme pianists of the 20th century, and beyond his remarkable technical facility, I think even in 1929 sound we can hear that his was a piano sound like no one else's, with a roundness and solidity even at the quietest volume levels, and a quality of springing expectation. Happily, RCA Victor recorded him playing all four of his piano concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody. (But see the technical note below.)


Sergei Rachmaninoff, piano; Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, cond. RCA/BMG, recorded Apr. 10 and 13, 1929

Technical note: This is another case where my piano maven Leo alerted me to transfers from the original 78s so far superior to any he had heard as to make them an all-or-nothing proposition. (He also tipped me off to the revelatory transfers of the Schnabel-Sargent Beethoven concertos by Mark Obert-Thorn for Naxos, and to the Pearl transfers of Schnabel's Beethoven sonatas by Seth B. Winner Sound Studios. He had always found it painfully difficult to listen to Rachmaninoff's own concerto recordings. And then came Mark Obert-Thorn's transfers for Naxos's Historical Series, the Second and Third Concertos on one CDthe First and Fourth and the Paganini Rhapsody on another.(Warning: The Naxos CDs are listed as deleted by the manufacturer, but copies still appear to be plentiful and cheap. Buy now, before they become rare and out-of-sight expensive.)
HEART OF THE SYMPHONY

By the way, at the same time it issued the Rubinstein Heart of the Piano Concerto LP, RCA issued a Heart of the Symphony one (they had consecutive catalog numbers) with movements from six famous symphonies in performances from the RCA catalog by Fritz Reiner. I never owned Heart of the Symphony, but one of these weeks we'll come back to the symphonic movements that were represented on it.

A RACHMANINOFF BONUS

It's not to hear the familiar Russian sound of bells in those opening chords of the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto, or in the opening of what was for a long timte the composer best-known work (so much so that he came almost to hate it), the C-sharp minor Prelude.

RACHMANINOFF: Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2


Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA/BMG, recorded Dec. 11, 1950


Byron Janis, piano. Mercury, recorded April 1960


IN TOMORROW NIGHT'S PREVIEW --

We take a peek at Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, starting with the Paganini theme (and variations) itself, played by the on-the-verge-of-stardom young Itzhak Perlman and also by guitarist Eliot Fisk. Then Sunday we'll hear the complete Second Piano Concerto (with a surprise video Rachmaninoff bonus).


SUNDAY CLASSICS POSTS

The current list is here.
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