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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, Op. 18
    Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
    , Op. 43
    Suite in C for two pianos, Op. 17*

    CYRIL SMITH piano
    Phyllis Sellick piano II*
    Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra
    conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent

    Recorded 1947-48. MONO.

    [76:55] full-price.

    by Jonathan Yungkans

    Do not let any thought of British reserve fool you for a minute. The Rachmaninov Second Concerto in Cyril Smith's hands is fleet-fingered and gripping without becoming hard-edged or overdriven. Starting with a forceful, almost precipitous first movement that gives Julius Katchen's performance a run for its money (those opening notes literally swagger forth), Smith gives the music a Horowitzian electricity.

    He also makes the music refreshingly unpredictable. The agitated section of the Adagio leading into the Scherzando suddenly speeds up with a sudden rush of joy as though the pianist were running open-armed into a large, sunlit field. The bridge sections of the finale accelerate with a striding resolve where others tiptoe gingerly.

    At the start of the finale, Smith holds back his speed in the soloist's entry, heightening the tension. His articulation throughout this movement is razor-sharp, and he plays up the drama in the march sections not with speed, but with a forceful attack and tone. Even so, there is never an ugly-sounding moment, not one banged note throughout - only a sense of power and command.

    Smith (left) brings out the tender side of this music with equal insight, playing quieter moments such as the "Full Moon and Empty Arms" sections with hushed gentleness and terraced phrasing. His rubati in the beginning of the Adagio gives the music a gently rocking quality that works very well, and the unaffected songfulness and warm glow with which he invests the softer moments of the opening movement have seldom been equaled.

    Sir Malcolm Sargent stays with Smith at every turn, giving lovingly phrased support (some overblowing by the horns five minutes into the adagio notwithstanding). His handling of the recapitulation in the adagio is extraordinarily warm and gentle - not a reprieve of an earlier mood, but a tender consolation after the outburst of the scherzando. The rapprochement between piano and orchestra that forms the final minute or so of this movement is extremely poignant.

    After Smith and Sargent's winning Second Concerto, I thought I was prepared for their Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Wrong. Opening with what seems like a relaxed traversal full of character and subtle wit, they lull you into relaxing though the opening variations, only to catch you off-guard when they turn up the heat. And they turn up the heat quite a bit.

    This is a teasing performance, never predictable or dull, that will keep you on the edge of your chair with its robust energy. Scott's passagework in Variation XI crackles more than it sparkles, and his loping impatience to run ahead only serves in running more voltage through the keyboard, while Sargent does a great job of pointing up the spikiness (and spookiness) of the crunchy wind parts. They pull back the tempo considerably in the next variation, heightening the mood Sargent has set, but keeping the piano line taut and restless.

    Soloist and conductor continue playing off one another - and the music - throughout the piece, bringing out the mordant wit of Rachmaninov's writing and the inherent dynamics between soloist and orchestra while never stepping into caricature or empty display. Neither do they short the lyricism in the famous Variation XVIII. While Smith keeps the solo line as restive as in the variations that precede it, and he and the orchestra do not wallow in sentimentality, they do allow the music to sing full-throated and with a genuinely moving amount of sentiment.

    As good as these performances are, Smith's recording of the Second Suite for Two Pianos with his wife, pianist Phyllis Sellick, is even finer, with some of the most passionate and beguiling playing on this disc. The opening Alla marcia alternates between a noble procession out a Russian opera, the murmurings of the crowd on-stage watching this parade, and the whisperings of a pair of lovers at the other end of the stage, away from the crowd. It is rousing, touching and fully enjoyable - and this is only the first movement.

    The second movement Waltz starts out friskily, but deepens in passion in its quieter moments, and the still romance of the central section played to perfection. The Romance that follows plumbs equal depths of hushed ardor and poignancy, with a fervent climax that will make your heart skip a few beats, while the Tarantelle ends the suite in a smolderingly sensual dance that frequently burst into flaming life. If the playing here is any indication, Smith and Sellick must have had one heck of a marriage.

    Michael Dutton has pulled off another of his minor miracles in audio restoration with this disc. The transfer in the concerto is absolutely clear, with only a slight boxiness and near-overload at some climaxes betraying the age of the performance. The concerto has excellent depth of field, with details like the pizzicato strings in the scherzando (starting at 7:25 on track two) and the lower string passages at the beginning of the finale coming off better than in some recordings today.
    There is considerably more hall space and echo in the Rhapsody, made one year after the concerto, which clouds the overall sound, but not enough to totally disfigure the performance. The suite, recorded last, falls somewhere in-between - not as far back in the sound picture as the Rhapsody, but not quite as clear as the concerto - but is perfectly serviceable.

    Some notes on the tracking for the Rhapsody: Track four, labeled "Introduction," contains Variations I-VI, while Variations VII-X, which would normally be considered the remainder of the opening variations, are lumped with most of the slower ones on Track Five, labeled "Theme (Variations 1-11)." Track Six, called "Finale fugato," actually begins with Variation XVIII - appropriate if you want to access this part of the work quickly but otherwise confusing, since the finale does not properly begin until Variation XIX. Individual tracking of variations, or at least a better thought-out grouping on the disc, would have helped, but it is a relatively small price to pay for music-making of this exalted level.

    Knowing nothing of Cyril Smith's playing before hearing this recording, I sat open-mouthed in wonder as one incredible moment followed another. Repeated listening only hooked me all the more. Even if you have not heard or read about this pianist before now, by all means, seek out this recording and do not let the age of these performances dissuade you one bit. You will be richly rewarded for your efforts.

    When the Tarantelle from the Second Suite ended, JONATHAN YUNGKANS not only had to catch his breath, but also almost had to take a cold shower. Fortunately, the disc did not melt in the player from the heat of the performance.

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    883: 14.3.2001 © Jonathan Yungkans

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