Rachmaninov recordings of Benno Moiseiwitsch (left), a friend and
colleague of the composer, fully bear out his reputation as a supreme
colorist at the keyboard. His playing of the Second Concerto is
extremely imaginative, with his constantly highlighting and coloring
inner voices in ways not even the composer had attempted, but doing
so with consummate taste and in full service of the music.
in the opening measures, Moiseiwitsch evokes a number of different
tones, as though we are hearing several church bells around us,
softly tolling in the distance, growing louder as we gradually move
closer to them. At the same time, no pianist has brought so strongly
to mind an orchestra of cellos and bases while accompanying the
strings in the main theme. He does so not only in the deep, rich
texture he evokes from the keyboard, but in his shaping of the melodic
line, as well.
with this coloration, Moiseiwitsch phrases his lines with an aristocratic
elegance, and the music mirrors a natural vibrancy and freshness
that stayed with the pianist virtually to the end of his career.
His constant suppleness and singing tone - not only in the adagio,
but in places such as the first movement development - while constantly
listening to and emulating the orchestra's phrasing, is a joy to
an unhappy coincidence, Moiseiwitsch was scheduled to play the Second
Concerto the day news arrived of Rachmaninov's death. The pianist
was terribly shaken by the news, and begged to be excused from the
concert. After a great deal of pleading from the management, Moiseiwitsch
acquiesced, on the conditions that there would be no rehearsal,
he would perform in street clothes, and there would be no applause
either before or after the concerto. After the performance, he played
one encore - Chopin's Funeral March - and left the stage
in profound silence.
not performed under such weighty circumstances, the solo works that
follow the concerto here are excellent, and two of them bear special
mention. Moiseiwitsch had wanted to record Rachmaninov's arrangement
of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's
Dream for quite some time, but HMV refused, posssibly because
it would have to compete with the composer's excellent recording.
a retake session for the Chopin ballades, however, Moisewitsch finished
with half an hour to spare. The company reluctantly agreed to let
him record the Scherzo, on one condition - that he would
attempt to do so in one take, without any practice whatsoever. Not
only did this fail to dissuade the pianist, but he pulled off the
task brilliantly, with an elfin lightness and sparkling wit that
fully rivals the composer's efforts.
B minor Prelude was one piece that Moiseiwitsch owned for as long
as he played it, and was a favorite of his and the composer's. The
pianist once asked Rachmaninov over lunch if there were a program
for this piece. "To me," Moiseiwitch said, "it suggests
who normally kept such matters private, suddenly thrust out an arm
and said, "Stop," then put a hand on Moiseiwitch's shoulder
and admitted, "It is the return." He then confided that
he had written the piece after seeing Arnold Böcklin's painting
"The Return" - a picture Moiseiwitch had never seen. Years
later, when the pianist finally viewed the painting for himself,
he admitted that it matched the mental picture he had carried whenever
he had played that prelude.
Cover from Savage Club House Dinner program, dated March 11,
1939, honoring Rachmaninov and inducting him into the club. Moiseiwitsch
is the one at the piano; the "Pom. Pom. Pom" are the
first notes of the C sharp minor prelude, so famous that Rachmaninov
ended up playing it everywhere, regardless of whether he wanted
to. The caption at the bottom reads, 'The Maestro: "M - m
- m! I seem to have heard that before somewhere!"
for the music, no one has played this work with a more deeply heartfelt
air of longing or greater wistfulness, building in Moiseiwitch's
hands to a climax of heart-wrenching intensity against a background
of pealing Russian church bells. Its most powerful moment, however,
is perhaps one of the quietest, with the final measures in the treble
signaling a quiet though painful resignation, with the bells fading
slowly from the backdrop, as though the return of the exile was
just a fantasy. No wonder this piece was a favorite of its composer,
especially when played like this.
same wit that courses through the Scherzo to A Midsummer
Night's Dream returns, albeit in a drier and more pungent form,
in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Though the composer's
would be a hard act to follow, Moiseiwitsch actually tops it in
some ways, with a more varied rhythmic and tonal palette while nearly
as vibrant in his pianistic brush strokes. His performance is also
a tremendous amount of fun.
impetuous in the early variations than Rachmaninov, Moiseiwitsch
seems to revel in the twists and turns of the solo part while playing
with an abundance of character. He gives the final measures of Variation
VI a hushed quality, perfectly presaging the atmosphere in the following
variation; and after the initial statement of the Dies irae
in Variation VII, he emphasizes the bass notes, making them toll
like a church bell in a graveyard - a highly effective touch that
both the composer and Hector Berlioz would have relished.
does not play down the jazz-like syncopations in Variations VIII-X,
but points them up still further (you could almost imagine Duke
Ellington at the keyboard at that instant - not so far-fetched,
since Rachmaninov was on friendly terms with the Duke), while the
Dies irae in Variation X sounds as though it just crawled out of
a grave. These touches never come across as caricature, but as strong
and uncanny underlinings of atmosphere and detail.
does not short the middle variations of charm or mystery, and he
plays the famous Variation XVIII as a gentle ballad, inflecting
the melody as a teasingly phrased vocal line while providing an
astonishing varied accompaniment in the notes that wrap around it.
Nor does he fail to bring the work to a rip-roaring conclusion,
despite a technical slip or two in the final moments (recordings
at this time were much closer in spirit to live performances, so
occasional missed notes or fluffed passages were not considered
unusual, as they are today). Compared to a performance like this,
most modern renderings of this piece seem unimaginative and pale,
and makes this disc all the more essential listening.
like this make JONATHAN
think of the phrase once used for jazz pianist Art Tatum - "Too
Wonderful for Words." That does not mean that he will stop
trying to use words whenever possible.
6.3.2001 © Jonathan Yungkans
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