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.
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When the long-playing (33rpm) record first appeared in the Soviet Union in 1951 it confirmed that the Union was as advanced as most leading West European record companies. Certainly the state-owned recording company, the All-Union Studio of Gramophone Recording, was using magnetic tape very shortly after the end of the Second World War, no doubt having acquired the process from Germany. Discs were manufactured and distributed by the state via the All-Union Firm of Gramophone Records (Melodiya). With regard to numbering, from the introduction of the LP until mid-1975, each side of an LP had its own unique number, just as shellac discs had before them. These numbers were usually consecutive, but when there were recouplings each side retained its original number. The prefix ‘D’ indicated dolgo-igrayuschy (‘long-playing’). At the start of the Soviet Union LP era ten-inch records were more prevalent than other sizes, with the consequence that this format was regarded as standard. To differentiate between this and other LP sizes, the numbers of a twelve-inch record were preceded by a zero, those of an eight-inch record by two zeros and those of a seven-inch record by three zeros.
Sergei Rachmaninov featured prominently in Melodiya’s early classical catalogue, as much as Prokofiev, more than Shostakovich though less so than an abundance of Tchaikovsky – an obvious reflection of the popularity of the composers in question. Rachmaninov’s profile might be considered surprising given that when he left Russia after the November 1917 Revolution, never to return, he became persona non grata. But unlike the unfortunate Nikolai Medtner, who departed the emerging Soviet Union in 1921 and whose music was still banned in the 1950s, Rachmaninov enjoyed a relatively swift rehabilitation. The recording of Rachmaninov’s two largest and most popular concertos (Nos 2 & 3) was entrusted to Lev Nikolaevich Oborin (11.11.1907–5.1.1974). He made the headlines in 1927 when he captured the first prize at the inaugural International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, ahead of two Polish entrants, Stanislaw Szpinalski and Roza Etkin-Moszkowska, as well as fellow Soviet entrant, Grigory Ginzburg. Oborin subsequently found himself in an exalted position; acknowledged as the first of the new breed of ‘Soviet pianists’ he was among the first artists permitted to tour outside the Soviet Union after the war.
Born in Moscow, Oborin attended the city’s Gnesin Music School from 1914, his first teacher being Yelena Gnesina, a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni and known for her ‘progressive’ methods, most significantly the emphasis upon musicianship rather than repetitive exercises, and her insistence that pupils should regularly perform concerts and recitals. Joining the Moscow Conservatoire in 1921, Oborin entered Konstantin Igumnov’s piano class and also studied composition with Georgi Conus, Alexander Gretchaninov and Nikolai Myaskovsky. He also flirted with conducting and gained insights from the likes of Bruno Walter and Hermann Abendroth. Two years after his Leningrad debut in 1924, Oborin completed his piano studies with distinction. His principal examination piece was Rachmaninov’s third concerto, a commonplace choice today but somewhat unusual at that time.
Oborin also played an important role in the day-to-day musical life of Moscow. After his competition success he became Igumnov’s assistant and taught chamber music, a genre to which he dedicated much of his life. In 1935 he played his first recital with violinist David Oistrakh, with whom he continued to collaborate for more than thirty years, and from 1941 to 1963 these two also formed an acclaimed trio with the cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky. In 1948 Oborin succeeded Igumnov at the Moscow Conservatoire. One of his earliest protégés was Vladimir Ashkenazy; other pupils included Mikhail Voskrensky, Dmitri Sakharov, Alexander Bakhchiev, Tamara Gusyeva, Irena Smolena, Boris Berman and Andrei Egorov. A stroke in the late 1960s terminated his concert career but he continued to teach until shortly before his death.
As is apparent from his interpretations of the second and third concertos, Oborin possessed an all-encompassing, commanding yet unsensational technique, one which was placed exclusively at the service of the music. The most frequently repeated observations about his noble playing – ‘simplicity’ and ‘naturalness’ – can be applied to all his many recordings, be they of Beethoven, Chopin and Ravel or Andrei Balanchivadze, Aram Khachaturian (both of whom dedicated piano concertos to him), Nikolai Myaskovsky, Sergei Prokofiev and, of course, Rachmaninov. Oborin’s 1947 recording of the second concerto was the first Soviet LP recording of Rachmaninov’s music, carrying the catalogue numbers D 07/8. (Incidentally, D 01/2 was Alexander Gauk’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s first orchestral suite with the ‘Radio Orchestra’.) Oborin’s 1949 recording of the third concerto was released across three ten-inch sides – D 1197/99 – the fourth side being allocated to the Beethoven Quartet’s recording of the ‘Romance and Scherzo’ from Rachmaninov’s unfinished string quartet.
Melodiya’s first recordings of the fourth concerto and the ‘Paganini Rhapsody’ were assigned to another prominent Soviet pianist, Yakov Israilevich Zak (20.11.1913–20/28.6.1976). Born in that veritable cradle of Russian/Soviet musicians, Odessa, Zak first studied at the city’s conservatoire with Maria Starkhova before moving to Moscow (1933–5) to work with Heinrich Neuhaus. Zak made his mature debut in 1935, the same year he began a parallel teaching career at the Moscow Conservatoire which more or less kept him at his alma mater for the rest of his life. (He was appointed full professor in 1947 and granted a chair in 1965.) His pupils include Nikolai Petrov, Yevgeni Mogilevsky, Lyubov Timofeyeva, Alexander Toradze, Youri Egorov and Eliso Virsaladze who eventually became Zak’s postgraduate assistant. Zak’s death was sudden and unexpected; well-founded rumours attributed his demise to a heart-attack brought on after a prolonged spell of interrogation by the KGB (‘heart-attack’ was a common KGB euphemism for having tortured someone to death). The mists surrounding his end go some way to explain why sources vary as to the precise date of his death in June 1976.
As a performer Zak rose to prominence after winning first prize in addition to the Mazurka Prize at the Third International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1937. Quickly recognized as one of the greatest Chopin players of his era, Zak also duly played his part in furthering contemporary Soviet music, notably premiering Dmitri Kabalevsky’s third piano sonata in Moscow in 1947 as well as works by Yevgeni Golubev and Yuri Levitin. He went on to record the Kabalevsky sonata, which was not officially released in the Soviet Union for decades, in addition to Anatoli Alexandrov’s second piano sonata. He made many concerto recordings for Melodiya: Brahms (No 2), Ravel and Richard Strauss (Burleske), the premiere Soviet recording of Prokofiev’s second piano concerto, two versions of Sergei Vasilenko’s concerto (one with the composer conducting) and the Rachmaninov recordings presented here. Zak’s 1954 recording of the fourth concerto, predating the famous Michaelangeli HMV recording by a few years, was the first to be made after the composer’s own premiere version of 1941. In Zak’s hands the score emerges not as an acerbic, enigmatic pendant to Rachmaninov’s other concerto output but more a natural, if concise, successor to the third concerto. Zak’s 1952 recording of the ‘Paganini Rhapsody’ uniquely fuses classical elegance with mercurial brilliance. (Both releases are considerably enhanced by Kyrill Kondrashin’s unsurpassed support.)
Two years younger than Zak, Sviatoslav Teofilovich Richter (20.3.1915–1.8.1997) was a relative latecomer to the concert platform. Born at Zhitomir in Ukraine, his father was a pianist, organist and composer of German descent. The family moved to Odessa where his father taught at the conservatoire and where Sviatoslav absorbed an all-round education. After a few lessons with his father Richter was, pianistically speaking, left largely to his own devices. He developed an exceptional skill at playing from orchestral scores at sight – to the extent that he was appointed accompanist to the Odessa Philharmonic Society in 1931 and, just two years later, répétiteur to the Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre. His debut as a pianist did not take place until 1934 – an all-Chopin programme which caused something of a sensation. In 1937 he moved to the Moscow Conservatoire in order to study with Heinrich Neuhaus. The two appeared to be kindred souls; Neuhaus insisted that it was he who learnt from Richter and defined his approach towards his precious charge as that of ‘benevolent neutrality’. After Richter’s father’s execution at Stalin’s hand and his mother’s subsequent flight to Germany, Neuhaus became Richter’s surrogate father. When Richter gave his first Moscow recital in 1942 audiences were dazzled by his combination of spontaneity and mighty temperament. Graduating in 1944, he entered the Third All-Union Contest of Performers of 1945 and shared first place with the brilliant Viktor Merzhanov. Not a virtuoso in the conventional manner, Richter’s technical and intellectual command was as unique as the breadth and scope of his repertoire. His endeavours to re-create a work in a new image identified him as a markedly individual personality. If, in later years, this individuality could spill into idiosyncrasy, he can be heard at his peak in his Melodiya recordings of the 1950s and early 1960s – witness this recording of the first concerto. Richter, ‘permanently excused teaching duties’ usually obligatory for all performing artists during the Soviet years, has no official roll-call of pupils, though there are many pianists who benefited beyond measure by working with him on the concert platform.
The release of Richter’s recording of the first concerto and Zak’s recording of the fourth concerto – the numbering of the two ten-inch LPs is sequential (D 2542/3 & D 2544/5) – completed Melodiya’s first survey of Rachmaninov’s works for piano and orchestra. It still stands as a landmark in the composer’s discography, a testament to what Soviet musicians and the Soviet recording industry achieved against near-insuperable odds. These recordings, it should be remembered, were not only made during the privations of everyday life after the Soviet Union’s terrible war, but against the background of political horrors created by Stalin as he moved ceaselessly against real and imagined enemies. Even after Stalin’s death in 1953 life improved little while so many deadly scores were settled. Despite, or perhaps because of all this, a remarkable legacy was born, one which is presented here in its entirety for the first time.
Bryan Crimp © 2007
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