A furtive recording shows Rachmaninov in pure state | Culture

The Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov (Nizhny Novgorod, 1873 - Beverly Hills, 1943) had an unmistakable way of beginning his piano recitals. He appeared on stage, with that tall, melancholy figure, as the pianist Cyril Smith recalls. The serious face and his unmistakable military haircut. He went to the instrument, as if he regretted doing so, and scrutinized the audience, while he played several times a chord in pianissimo until it was reduced to a whisper. Only then began the first work. The painter Leonid Pasternak admired the intensity of his interpretations, but also the naturalness of his gestures, similar to those who work on a desk or take a soup. Charles O'Connell, his producer at RCA, also emphasized the beauty of his piano sound. That exquisite ability to shade and color each phrase along with your lack of interest in the recording process. But also his mania to prohibit the diffusion of any sound record that he did not consider musically perfect. He had recorded several albums in studio, from 1919 to 1942, but never live. I was suspicious even of the radio, because of its bad influence on art. I preferred to work in the recording studio and then select the best shot, even if any technical detail would have an unforgettable interpretation.

The North American seal Marston Records, specialized in historical recordings, has just published a box that includes an unknown recording of Rajmáninov playing his piano Symphonic Dances for orchestra. It is the only relevant sound document of Rachmaninoff in vivo. It was furtively performed by the conductor of the Orchestra of Philadelphia, Eugene Ormandy, on December 20, 1940, that is, a month before he directed the premiere of that new work that the Russian composer had dedicated to him. It has been preserved in two homemade acetate disks, and within Ormandy's personal background deposited at the University of Pennsylvania, where it was recently discovered by Professor Jay Reise. The recording collects fragments with small speeches that cover three quarters of the work. In fact, both the original version of the sound document and another one published by the US label team headed by Ward Marston are published on CD.

Cover of the album 'Rachmaninoff plays Symphonic Dances'.
Cover of the album 'Rachmaninoff plays Symphonic Dances'.

The value of the document is incalculable. Because the composer never recorded his Symphonic Dances, neither with Vladimir Horowitz, nor directing the Philadelphia Orchestra. And because it is, in addition, its last composition; his "last flash", as he used to call it. But also to reveal the true incandescence and spontaneity of his musical performance released from the pressure of the concert hall and the recording studio. It is Rachmaninov in its pure state. A composer, who was also a virtuoso, and who unfolded from the keyboard to get, between onomatopoeias, humming and stomping, we believe that it is possible to play a piano like an orchestra. It also documents his ability to guide music to an unknown climax, paint with unique colors from the keyboard and reveal musical secrets that can not be fixed in writing in a score.

All the hidden program of the Symphonic Dances he acquires a new meaning in the hands of Rachmaninoff. Not only the vital reference of his three movements (midday, dusk and midnight), but also each particular topic. That quote, which opens the initial Non allegro, and comes from the opera The golden rooster, by Rimski-Kórsakov, the only other score that Rachmaninoff took with him after leaving Russia forever in 1917. But also references to his own compositions, such as the song The muse, op. 34/1, or the final evocation of his First Symphony, a composition that he believed lost during the Russian Revolution (although he recovered after his death) and turns here into an emotional sound remembrance of another time. Few, like the poet Adam Zagajewski, in his book Asymmetry, have understood the music of Rachmaninoff as a logbook of our own existence. The composer tells us now, himself and at the piano, "what was fulfilled and what vanished. That lives".

With a spy of Stalin

Box Rachmaninoff plays Symphonic Dances, of Marston Records, is completed with the comments of the prestigious musicologist Richard Taruskin, but also with other magnificently restored phonograms. It includes the first live radio recording of the Symphonic Dances, of 1942, performed by Dimitri Mitrópoulos with the New York Philharmonic at the request of the composer himself, together with his record, from 1941, of the Third Symphony. Also the memorable version that Eugene Ormandy directed to the Philadelphia Orchestra of The island of the dead, after the death of the composer and with his funeral laudatio. And even the impressive version of Benno Moiseiwitsch as soloist of the Rhapsody on a Paganini theme recorded in London, in 1946, as well as a record, of 1966, of his Three Russian songs, op. 41, under the direction of Leopold Stokowski.

In addition, there are other minor live recordings of Rachmaninoff, both in private meetings and in the concert hall (two fragments of Brahms and Liszt ballads recorded accidentally, in 1931 and with very poor sound, during a technical test). But here the famous New York recording of 1926 stands out, where Rakhmaninov accompanies the piano with the exuberant and colorful voice of Nadezhda Plevitskaya in the traditional Russian song, Powders and blusher, who would later arrange for chorus and orchestra within his referred op. 41. Plevitskaya became, at that time, a Soviet agent from exile and had a life as a novel recounted by Pamela A. Jordan in Stalin's Singing Spy (Bowman & Littlefield, 2016).


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