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CD Review

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Essential Classics

  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra #1, Op. 1
  • Concerto for Piano and Orchestra #4, Op. 40
  • Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Philippe Entremont, piano
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
Sony SBK89962
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Fortunately for most music written before the gramophone era, there are no "authoritative" or "official" recordings with its composers featured as conductor or instrumentalist. Many 20th century composers were signed to popular labels, however, and offered direct feedback if not on-stage involvement All too often, performers and audiences surrender to the pitfall of viewing a composer's own recording as gospel. This is especially unfortunate for musicians schooled in the recording process; they ought to be aware that numerous intangibles come into play when a microphone is turned on. This includes technical weaknesses that a given performer may have, the conditions and logistics under which a recording is made, and the danger of a musician who intimately knows his work dropping into autopilot – which those who have seen footage of Richard Strauss conducting will attest to.

Prime examples of the dreaded "composer's recording" are by Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose dazzling virtuosity and savvy compositional technique have left his music's players under an Everest-like shadow. When playing music by such composers as Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt, there is an unrecorded "standard" with legroom for a given performer's insight Composers such as Rachmaninoff, however, have left behind a vast recording legacy that defines their music to the last staccato. This "dog in the manger" situation will need to be overcome, since composers were generally much more flexible. The only alternative solution is to make a composer's own recording the single version that can be heard, restricting future "performances" to living room stereos, which, needless to say, defeats the entire purpose of music as a communal art?

Philippe Entremont was one pianist who faced this dilemma, recording three of Rachmaninoff's concerti and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Columbia Records All but one of the recordings were conducted by Eugene Ormandy, whose Philadelphia Orchestra is said to have been Rachmaninoff's favorite. Philadelphia's velvety sound was ideal for his music and in Ormandy, Rachmaninoff found eager support. The orchestra seems on its toes behind Entremont's fluent playing in this installment of the Sony Essential Classics series, which curiously offers Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #1, Piano Concerto #4, and Rhapsody, the latter two premièred by Philadelphia under Leopold Stokowski.

When making these recordings, Eugene Ormandy already had the experience of conducting Concerto #1 and Concerto #4 with Rachmaninoff on piano for RCA Victor; Ormandy had not only the privilege of collaborating with the works' composer, but also with the composer as soloist. Released in 1958 and 1963 (15 and 20 years after Rachmaninoff's death), Ormandy and Entremont mesh together nicely, offering a strong sense of drive, a fair balance of soloist and orchestra, and a sureness of hand from Entremont that maintains the piano's narrative role. Such qualities are found in all three works, despite the unpopular status of both concerti.

Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #1 (in F-sharp minor, Op. 1) functions more as a curiosity piece than a work of substance. It was written in 1892, while Rachmaninoff was finishing his studies at the Moscow Conservatory; Rachmaninoff revised the concerto in 1917, but still looked upon it as a figment of young adulthood. We have to question his later commitment to the work, since much of it remains fragmented and without a clear path of development. It is also plainly derivative of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Liszt, and Grieg. Certainly, the concerto is in need of a larger overhaul that Rachmaninoff may have been unwilling to give. Entremont and Ormandy do well under the circumstances, however, tapping energy into a piece that doesn't offer much for the instrumentalists to chew on.

Far more successful is Piano Concerto #4 (in G minor, Op. 40), the only concerto written by Rachmaninoff while living in the United States. The Rach 4 is considerably darker then its predecessors, using frequent syncopation and more economical part-writing. While the texture is still unquestionably Rachmaninoff's, its ideas are compacted and sometimes toe the lines of valediction. Major reasons for #4's unpopularity are its terseness and frequently changing shape, leaving it without melodies that render #2 and #3 so unforgettable. What makes #4 effective are the haunting thoughts it leaves you with rather than any particular motifs. The work is one of Rachmaninoff's most intriguing and handled aptly by the performers.

Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Op. 43) would have been more correctly titled Paganini Variations, since the work is in explicit variation form and has none of the open-endedness that makes for a true rhapsody. Entremont and the Philadelphia Orchestra soar in this composition, which is arguably Rachmaninoff's most popular; it has all of the elements that Ormandy needs to invoke romantic splendor. Unlike the jarring feel of Piano Concerto #1 and Piano Concerto #4, the Rhapsody has a fluidity of ideas that is breathtaking

The marketing of this disc in Sony's Essential Classics series is rather odd, since the two concerti are not better-known Rachmaninoff works and you can gather from Wolfgang Dämling's liner notes that they're on this CD in spite of themselves. The Rhapsody is far more popular and it seems this disc's only reason for existence, with the two concerti included as super-sized fillers. The disc is light years from being "essential," but with Entremont and Ormandy hitting the ground on a run; it's another worthy edition for Rachmaninoff completists. Reissued by Columbia mainstay Howard H. Scott, the disc has clean playback with orchestra and soloist in ideal contrast. The program booklet is moderately informative and uses plain but attractive cover art.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul John Ramos