Monday, April 14, 2014

Sergey Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos 1 and 4 & Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The Naxos label, so well known and regarded for high-quality and modestly-priced classical recordings, has a series of historical works that might be a problem for audiophiles, but present truly classic performances.

In this case, you can't get much more notable than two of the concertos (though not the notoriously difficult and renowed third) of the great Sergey Rachmaninov, performed by the maestro, with the renowned Philadelphia Orchestra under two of the greatest conductors of the 20th century in Eugene Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski.

Recorded between 1939 and 1941, these performances make up for lack of stereo sound what they possess in boundless amounts:  sheer technical and emotional brilliance.  Even though the composer was within a few years of his 1943 passing and his best-known concert days were from the World War I era, it is truly a treat to hear him playing with such precision and passion some of his best-known concertos. 

Amazingly, the liners indicate, Rachmaninov's hands were so large that he could span a chord of a thirteenth (this is twelve keys apart) on his left hand and could do so on a tenth on his right by using the first finger on the lower note and then hitting the upper by thumb crossing.  This kind of technique obviously required enormous amounts of practice as well as physical gift. 

Rachmaninov left his native Russia in the wake of the revolution of 1917 and resided in America for some years before moving to Europe.  With the outbreak of World War II, however, he found himself back in the U.S., where he spent his remaining years touring with a regularity not found since his performing heyday of a quarter-century or so before.

While the composer and pianist is in great form, so is the famed Philadelphia Orchestra under its legendary conductors.  Stokowski, of Irish and Polish extraction, was born in London in 1882 and came to New York in his early 20s as an organist of note.  His first conducting spot was in Paris in 1908 and, within a few years, held the baton in Philadelphia, where he was conductor for a quarter-century.  Stokowski continued to conduct, however, until his death at age 95.

During the last two years of Stokowski's tenure, Eugene Ormandy joined the orchestra.  Born in Hungary in 1899, he was a violinist and arrived in America in the early 1920s.  He worked in an orchestra accompanying silent movies and conducted serious music before becoming conductor with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, where he was well-known for his recordings.  After Stokowski passed the baton on to him, Ormandy led the Philadelphia Orchestra for 35 highly productive and well-known years, retiring in 1973.  He died a dozen years later.

Rachmaninov's first piano concerto was completed in 1891, when still in his teens, and revised it in 1917.  The fourth concerto was finished in 1926 and debuted under Stokowski's baton in Philadelphia in the spring of the next year.  The work, however, was revised in 1941 and recorded under Ormandy's conducting.

The "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" was completed in 1934 and debuted that year with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  It involves variations on the theme of the 24th and final caprice of the famed 19th-century violinist Niccol├│ Paganini and runs about 25 minutes long, about the same length of the each of the piano concertos.

It is one thing to hear great music performed by a fine orchestra, but quite another to have the composer as the featured soloist.  This fantastic historical recording is a remarkable document of a top-flight ensemble, conductors of the first order, and a superlative composer and performer.

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