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Hyperion Records

APR5585 - Sergio Fiorentino – The Early Recordings, Vol. 5 – Rachmaninov

Recording details: September 1963
Greenwich Town Hall, London, United Kingdom
Release date: July 2006
Total duration: 72 minutes 34 seconds

Sergio Fiorentino – The Early Recordings, Vol. 5 – Rachmaninov
No 2 in C sharp minor: Prelude: Lento  [4'35]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 1 in F sharp minor: Largo  [3'42]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 2 in B flat major: Maestoso  [3'02]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 3 in D minor: Tempo di minuetto  [2'58]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 4 in D major: Andante cantabile  [4'41]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 5 in G minor: Alla marcia  [3'34]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 6 in E flat major: Andante  [2'40]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 7 in C minor: Allegro  [2'12]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 8 in A flat major: Allegro vivace  [3'22]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 9 in E flat minor: Presto  [1'40]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 10 in G flat major: Largo  [3'30]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 1 in C major: Allegro vivace  [1'11]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 2 in B flat minor: Allegretto  [2'47]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 3 in E major: Allegro vivace  [2'14]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 4 in E minor: Allegro con brio  [4'56]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 5 in G major: Moderato  [2'24]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 6 in F minor: Allegro appassionato  [1'14]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 7 in F major: Moderato  [2'11]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 8 in A minor: Vivo  [1'29]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 9 in A major: Allegro moderato  [2'17]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 10 in B minor: Lento  [6'11]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 11 in B major: Allegretto  [2'32]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 12 in G sharp minor: Allegro  [1'49]  recorded 22 September 1963
No 13 in D flat major: Grave  [5'23]  recorded 22 September 1963

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
We do not know when the idea of composing twenty-four Preludes encompassing all the major and minor keys came to Rachmaninov, but there was no suggestion when the ten Preludes Op. 23 appeared in 1903 that such a ‘cycle’ would be completed. There is no repeating key-scheme to the Op. 23 Preludes, beyond the alternation of minor and major modes; but perhaps the fact that Rachmaninov cast half of these pieces in major keys—a striking decision for a composer whose brand of lyrical melancholy seems most at home in the minor—hints that he was already open to the possibility of a set of twenty-four Preludes, after those of Chopin and Bach, traversing all major and minor tonalities. The lack of duplication of keys in Op. 23 supports this. By the time Rachmaninov composed the thirteen Preludes Op. 32 (which again alternate major and minor modes), he was able to complete the circle by returning to the tonic of the early C sharp minor Prelude, Op. 3 No. 2, in a glorious final Prelude in D flat major replete with motivic cross-references to the famous three-note opening of the earlier piece.

The Prelude in C sharp minor is a piece of startling originality, if not beguiling subtlety. During the composer’s lifetime it was his most famous piece, and Rachmaninov grew to resent repeatedly being asked to perform a work he had long outgrown. Composed in 1893 when the composer was nineteen years old, the second of five Morceaux de Fantaisie Op. 3, this imposing Prelude evokes sonorous carillons, a sound­world that would inspire Rachmaninov frequently in later works.

The ten Preludes Op. 23 were composed during a period of creative resurgence following Rachmaninov’s treatment by Dr Nikolay Dahl for a depressive illness brought on by the disastrous premiere of his first Symphony. This prolonged blossoming, assisted by a wealthy relative, Alexander Siloti, who subsidized the composer’s work during this two-year period, gave us the second Piano Concerto, the second Suite for two pianos, the Cello Sonata, the ‘Spring’ Cantata, the ten songs Op. 21, the ‘Chopin’ Variations, and the Op. 23 Preludes. There is a common thread to all these works, a recognizable melodic and harmonic imprint that seems to link Rachmaninov’s music of this period to the work which rekindled his creative juices, the second Piano Concerto (most recognizable in the second Suite for two pianos, the Cello Sonata, and Nos. 6 and 10 of the Op. 23 Preludes). In the Preludes a thematic fecundity is tempered by an organic and tightly constructed motivic economy.

Unlike, say, Chopin’s Études, which usually underpin right-hand passagework with left-hand thematic material, the motion of Rachmaninov’s Op. 23 Preludes is usually provided by intricate left-hand accompaniments. Whether in the lugubrious No. 1 in F sharp minor with its subtle chromaticisms, the heroic No. 2 in B flat major with its rolling waves of arpeggios, the nocturne-like No. 4 in D major, the nostalgic central section of the famous No. 5 in G minor, or the highly chromatic accompanying line that weaves its way through No. 6 in E flat major, the character of each Prelude is to a large extent determined by the pianistic texture, itself usually led by the left hand. There are, of course, exceptions—notably the swirling right-hand figurations of No. 7 in C minor and the lilting, poignant left-hand melody of No. 10 in G flat major.

The thirteen Preludes of Op. 32 are more varied and exploratory, the piano-writing less lush and more sinewy. The whole set was completed in nineteen days in 1910, and the composer seemed to revel in his return to composing miniatures after a prolonged period immersed in large-scale works: the previous three years had seen the appearance of the second Symphony, the first Piano Sonata, the orchestral tone poem The Isle of the Dead, the third Piano Concerto, and the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Rachmaninov takes motivic concentration further in this set of Preludes than he did in Op. 23, and many of the pieces are built on thematic cells (often based on a simple dotted rhythm) stated in the opening bar. Although tightly constructed, the Op. 32 Preludes explore a wider structural range than the familiar arch-like shape (build-up, climax, aftermath) common to many pieces from the earlier set. Interpretatively these later Preludes are the more demanding, and they reveal Rachmaninov at the height of his creative powers.

Sergio Fiorentino recorded the complete Preludes in a single day—22 September 1963—in Greenwich Town Hall in London. His account has an imperious sweep and compelling sense of conviction; perhaps unsurprisingly, given the time constraints, the overall picture is sometimes more important than attention to detail. Fiorentino had such a natural musical instinct and innate technical facility that he didn’t need multiple retakes to capture the essence of a piece as he interpreted it, let alone to set down a digitally accurate performance. Who else could have recorded—as Fiorentino did—not only the complete Rachmaninov Preludes but also Beethoven’s Appassionata, two Mozart sonatas (K330 and K570), six Chopin Mazurkas, and a selection of Prokofiev including the Op. 11 Toccata all on the same day? This isn’t to suggest that Fiorentino wouldn’t have benefited from higher production values; it is one of the tragedies of his career that his contemporary reputation labelled him as something of a workhorse, and that perhaps for financial reasons he was willing to overburden himself with unreasonable recording commitments. The minor technical infelicities that affect certain Preludes—most noticeably, the awkward articulation of repeated chords at the beginning of the B flat major and G minor from Op. 23—could so easily have been rectified.

As a whole, this recording displays an astonishing consistency of style and execution. Fiorentino’s Rachmaninov has an authentic grandeur without any sense of ego. His virtuosity is, in fact, rather understated—Fiorentino was not a man to draw attention to his extraordinary pianistic facility—yet in those pieces that demand it he is able to capture musical rhetoric without conveying any impression of self-serving over-inflation. Fiorentino’s playing is essentially reserved and aristocratic, yet it has all the traits one associates with great Romantic pianism: his sense of line is paramount, along with his beautiful singing sonority and gorgeously varied tonal palette. He captures the sense of melancholy so important in Rachmaninov, whether in the dark-hued F sharp minor, Op. 23 No. 1 (where Fiorentino’s magical performance evokes a very special atmosphere), or underlying the sustained lyrical outpourings of the D major and E flat major, Op. 23 Nos. 4 and 6 (in Fiorentino’s hands the D major especially conjures a halo of ethereal calm). Few pianists, too, can dispatch the fearsome double notes of the E flat minor, Op. 23 No. 9—commonly compared to Liszt’s Feux follets—with such nonchalance yet with such rock-steady pulse and inevitable rhythmic momentum.

If anything Fiorentino’s performances of the Op. 32 Preludes are even more authoritative. He sails through the virtuoso chordal demands of the E minor (No. 4), captures the Siberian iciness of the A minor (No. 8) and is stunningly assured in the multi-layered pianistic complexities of the final D flat major (No. 13). In the greatest of all the Preludes, the B minor (No. 10)—inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s painting The Return—Fiorentino’s compelling performance seems to carry meaning and significance in every note. This is Rachmaninov-playing of a natural style, authority and communicative spirit that goes beyond mere digital cleanliness (any competent pianist, with an expert producer and editor, can set down a note-perfect account of the Preludes). What Fiorentino achieves, in what is virtually a live performance albeit in the unprepossessing sterility of a recording studio, is an astonishing level of sustained inspiration.

Tim Parry © 2006

Other albums in this series
'Sergio Fiorentino – The Early Recordings, Vol. 6 – Schumann' (APR5586)
Sergio Fiorentino – The Early Recordings, Vol. 6 – Schumann
APR5586  Download only  
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