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.
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.
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.
(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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
the Tarantelle from the Second Suite ended, JONATHAN
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.
14.3.2001 © Jonathan Yungkans
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