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Issue 113
This article was last updated on
26 June, 2001

More Violin and Piano:

  • The …tudes
    With Earl Wild (Chesky)

  • The Nocturnes
    With Maria Jo„o Pires (DG) and Vladimir Ashkenazy (Decca)

  • The Waltzes
    With Idil Biret (Naxos)

  • Richter: Chopin Recitals 1954-1977 On the Sviatoslav Richter Archives Volume 2 (Doremi Legendary Treasures)

  • Piano Concertos - Zimerman (DG)

  • Piano Concertos - Szekely (Naxos)

  • Piano Concertos - Kissin's 1984 recording (BMG)

  • Piano Concertos - Chamber Versions (BIS)
    Versions for Piano Quintet.

  • Harasiewicz - The Legendary Chopinist
    An Inktroduction by Evan Stephens
  • Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

    Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op.18*
    Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream (Mendelssohn, arr. Rachmaninov)

    Preludes Op.3 No.2; Op.23 No.5; Op.32 Nos.5, 10 & 12
    Moment musical Op. 16 No. 4
    Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43

    London Philharmonic Orchestra
    conducted by Walter Goehr* and Basil Henderson

    Recorded 1937-43. MONO.

    APPIAN APR 5505
    [78:26] full-price

    by Jonathan Yungkans

    The 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.

    Even 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.

    Along 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 hear.

    By 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.

    While 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.

    At 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.

    The 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 a return."

    Rachmaninov, 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.

    RIGHT: 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!"

    As 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.

    The 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 stunning recording 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.

    More 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.

    He 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.

    Moiseiwitsch 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.

    Recordings like this make JONATHAN YUNGKANS 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.

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    882: 6.3.2001 © Jonathan Yungkans

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