'Rachmaninov's mix of Slavonic wit and melancholy is caught to perfection … a true keyboard aristocrat' (Gramophone)
Movement 1: Prelude [3'37]
Movement 3: Gavotte [2'41]
Movement 6: Gigue [1'51]
When the twelve-year-old Sergei Rachmaninov became a piano student of Nikolai Zverev at the Moscow Conservatoire, the boy played duet transcriptions with fellow pupils as part of his general musical education. Tchaikovsky heard and commended them, and (probably inspired by his encouragement, and without instruction) in the summer of 1886 Rachmaninov began his first work as a composer: a piano-duet transcription of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Manfred’ Symphony, now lost. But Rachmaninov continued to transcribe music for the piano, and a selection is recorded here. This album also includes a transcription of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise—the quintessence of the composer’s melodic genius—arranged by Zoltán Kocsis.
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When SergeI Rachmaninov was born in April 1873, the concept of creating permanent recordings was exercising the minds of two remarkable, yet unconnected, inventors—the American Thomas Alva Edison, and the Frenchman Charles Cros. By the time of Rachmaninov’s death, a few days before his seventieth birthday, Cros’ theory and Edison’s practical research had become a worldwide industry, which even by then had led to stereophonic recordings, long-playing records and tape and wire recording—although these advances had to wait until after World War II for their commercial development.
In some ways, Rachmaninov welcomed modern inventions: in pre-revolutionary Russia he acquired a telephone and a fine motor car, but he came to dislike the former. In 1919, he made his first records—in the USA, for the same Thomas Edison who in 1877 had achieved the earliest practical recording. A short while later Rachmaninov became an exclusive Victor artist and an enthusiast for the gramophone. He might have made more records had not RCA Victor’s subsequent classical director Charles O’Connell disliked him personally and rejected many of the artist’s suggestions.
Nevertheless, Rachmaninov’s recorded legacy (including piano rolls) totals some fifteen hours. Within his lifetime he had witnessed the universal growth of passive home entertainment, for by the early 1940s radio broadcasting had joined recording as a medium of instant global communication. Seventy years after Rachmaninov’s death, stored information can be retrieved quickly and relatively cheaply. Short of complete disaster, the notion of being without these means of modern communication is unthinkable, yet the world into which Rachmaninov was born and grew up lacked such contrivances.
A child in those days could learn music largely only through playing it. In addition to solo piano arrangements, transcriptions for two pianists at one piano of orchestral or even chamber music were the principal way by which either children or adults got to know these compositions, for concerts were then comparatively rare events. One of Rachmaninov’s earliest childhood memories was of playing piano duets with his grandfather Arkady who, as a young man, had taken lessons from the Irish pianist and composer John Field.
So when, on the recommendation of his cousin Alexander Siloti (who had been a Liszt pupil), the twelve-year-old Sergei Rachmaninov became a piano student of Nikolai Zverev at the Moscow Conservatoire, the boy played duet transcriptions with fellow pupils as part of his general musical education. The great Tchaikovsky heard and commended them, and (probably inspired by his encouragement, and without instruction) in the summer of 1886 Rachmaninov began his first work as a composer. This was a piano-duet transcription of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Manfred’ Symphony, then recently published by Jurgenson (the Symphony was premiered on 11 March: it is likely Rachmaninov was present). This transcription was the kind of practical musicianship which the boy needed to supplement his lessons in piano and harmony. Rachmaninov and a fellow-pupil played the transcription to Tchaikovsky, and the composer must have been intrigued by the boy’s work. Whether we would be impressed with this first effort remains conjectural, for the transcription is lost.
From his earliest musical encounters therefore Rachmaninov regarded transcriptions as a normal part of music-making. Some editions of his own later works, thought to be ‘transcriptions’, are in fact the original versions. More often than not, particularly with regard to his operas, Rachmaninov orchestrated these ‘original versions’—a usual working method for opera composers. As Rachmaninov was also a superb pianist, and was director of the Bolshoi Opera, a greater interest than is customary lies in the vocal scores he published of his operas—especially with regard to the purely orchestral items: overtures, entr’actes, intermezzos or dances. They are piano transcriptions of a high order, akin to the composer’s first drafts.
In this regard, the fifteen-year-old Sergei Rachmaninov planned his first opera, Esmeralda, after Victor Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris—in October 1888. It remained unfinished but the Introduction to Act I and an entr’acte (with other music) survive in piano score. Three years later, at Siloti’s suggestion (and under his supervision) Rachmaninov arranged Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty for piano duet. This was issued in 1892, a year that saw Rachmaninov’s vocal score of his opera Aleko published, with its Introduction, Intermezzo and Dances.
1892 also saw him write a work for piano duet which first appeared in orchestral form two years later: the Caprice bohémien, Op 12. The view that the piano duet version is a transcription is untrue but Rachmaninov’s next three duet arrangements were done after the orchestral scores, in common with the normal practice of issuing orchestral works in duet versions for domestic use. In 1893 he made a duet version of The Rock, his orchestral fantasy Op 7; two years later, one of his ill-fated First Symphony (prior to its single, disastrous, performance in Rachmaninov’s lifetime) and, ironically, a duet version of Glazunov’s Sixth Symphony, Op 58 (Glazunov had conducted the unhappy premiere of Rachmaninov’s Symphony in March 1897). The Glazunov was Rachmaninov’s last piano duet transcription.
It is often thought the failure of his Symphony plunged the composer into a period of self-doubt from which he only recovered three years later after a course of hypnotherapy. But Rachmaninov’s life as a performing musician during this period was so hectic that he had little time for composition even had he wished. He declined invitations for new works, including one for a Second Piano Concerto, as his post as director of the newly formed Mamontov Opera Company took most of his time—he conducted six operas in the first season, including the Russian debut of Bizet’s Carmen. His growing international reputation—fuelled by the fame of his C sharp minor Prelude—led him to accept an invitation from the Royal Philharmonic Society of London in 1899. After a notable Queen’s Hall appearance he promised to return the next season with a new concerto. But the following year, after composing a few short pieces, Rachmaninov’s muse would not respond; for several reasons he had become depressed and he agreed to visit Dr Nikolai Dahl, a pioneer hypnotherapist. The treatment worked: the new Concerto was well-advanced by the time Rachmaninov made the first of his transcriptions for solo piano, the Minuet from Bizet’s L’arlésienne Suite No 1, dated 13 September 1900. This was not published until 1950. Rather more puzzling is that Rachmaninov made another transcription of the Minuet over twenty years later which was published in 1923. This second transcription is the one recorded here. The first version has different harmonies and melodic lines—rather closer, in fact, to Bizet’s original.
Rachmaninov never played his first solo piano transcription in public; in 1908, he composed the first act of another unfinished operatic project, to Maeterlinck’s Monna Vanna, which exists only in unpublished piano score, including the Prelude. Rachmaninov regarded his Monna Vanna music highly but contractual problems prevented its completion. Three years later, in March 1911, Rachmaninov wrote his Polka de W R (Vassily, or Wassily, Rachmaninov, his father)—a tune which his father often played on the piano. For many years this was thought to be an original theme by Rachmaninov senior: in fact, it is ‘Lachtäubchen’ (‘The little laughing dove’) by Franz Behr, a famous 19th-century salon composer, whose waltz ‘Les sylphes’ was highly popular. Perhaps Behr can be blamed for the uncertainty of the work’s origin: he used several pseudonymns—English, French, Italian, and so on—for his music. Rachmaninov’s ‘innocent transcription’ of this piece was published in 1911 in a book of short pieces with contributions by Medtner, Scriabin and Taneyev; Rachmaninov made the first of his several records of the piece during his intial sessions for Edison eight years later, showing his affection for the trifle.
Following his marriage in April 1902 Rachmaninov produced an important group of songs, Opus 21, completing them in Lucerne during his honeymoon. Eight years later, on his return to Russia after his first American tour, an anonymous lady (later identified as Mme Fekle Rousseau) sent him a bouquet of white lilacs. She signed the card ‘The White Lilac Lady’. They never met, but thereafter she sent an identical bouquet to all his concerts—even those abroad. Lilacs and roses adorned the gate leading to the front door of Rachmaninov’s country estate at Ivanovka. The flowers bloomed beautifully during the idyllic summer of 1914. Rachmaninov’s solo piano transcription of his song Lilacs—the fifth of his Opus 21—appeared by the end of the year, in the wake of Germany declaring war on Russia on 1 August. No artist could have remained untroubled by the uncertainties the outbreak of hostilities brought; here was a time for reminiscence, a time to transcribe this meaningful and beautiful song for piano. Rachmaninov recorded this as well, but in 1941 (in not dissimilar circumstances) he made another version of the transcription, which he also recorded. In this second version, recorded here, Rachmaninov’s changes are slight: a few notes here and there, and six alternate bars. In either version, this is a haunting piece.
The Great War went badly for Russia: by the end of 1917 two revolutions had led to the fall of the Romanovs and the rise of the Bolsheviks under Lenin, who took the country out of the war at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The old order was swept away, and with it Rachmaninov’s familiar artistic milieu—to say nothing of his country estate. With his family and few possessions, he left Russia: after living for a while in Scandinavia, they arrived in New York City on Armistice Day, 1918. He made his debut in the USA as an American resident with a recital later in November in Providence, Rhode Island. At a second recital in Boston on 15 December, he premiered his arrangement for piano solo of John Smith’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. This was unpublished: the manuscript is lost, but Rachmaninov recorded it for the Ampico piano roll company in 1919 at about the same time as the Edison discs which included his only recording of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 2. The Liszt Rhapsody includes a cadenza, taken down from his records and published after Rachmaninov’s death. He never wrote it out in full.
By 1921, Rachmaninov’s ‘new’ career as a touring virtuoso had been well established; he was now recording exclusively for the Victor company (under better conditions than Edison could offer). Fritz Kreisler and John McCormack, fellow Victor artists, recorded two of the composer’s songs with violin obbligato on 2 April, 1920; Rachmaninov was so taken by the disc that he arranged a Russian folk song for McCormack and arranged Kreisler’s famous Liebesleid for solo piano, which he recorded for Victor in 1921. Almost a year later he returned to the Bizet L’arlésienne Minuet and made his second version; this was published in 1923. This new version shows the composer’s move towards a leaner keyboard style.
The same year, 1923, Rachmaninov transcribed the Hopak from Musorgsky’s opera Sorotchinsky fair for solo piano (both Bizet and Musorgsky had made piano versions of their own pieces), but he did not write this down until January 1924—after his first recording of it, for Ampico (his Victor disc was made in 1925). Rachmaninov also arranged the Hopak for violin and piano, no doubt with Kreisler in mind, but this remains unpublished. Also possibly in 1924 (the manuscript is undated), he transcribed Daisies—the third of his last group of songs (Opus 38 of 1916)—which echoes a phrase from the second Piano Concerto. This may have been an encore item; in 1925 Rachmaninov made a companion transcription to Liebesleid, Kreisler’s Liebesfreud, which he also recorded the same year. Returning the compliment, Kreisler arranged Rachmaninov’s Daisies for violin and piano.
1925 also saw Rachmaninov’s transcription of Schubert’s Wohin? from Die schöne Müllerin, which he premiered at a recital in Stamford, Connecticut, that October. In 1929, Rachmaninov made his final Ampico rolls: the sessions included his new transcription of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The flight of the bumblebee, from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. This was not published until 1931, the year of Rachmaninov’s last original solo piano work, the Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op 42, which he dedicated to Kreisler.
By then, Rachmaninov’s habit was to make a solo piano arrangement and not publish the piece until after he had played it publicly several times. This was the case in 1933 with his next arrangements, perhaps his most famous, the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a suite of three movements from Bach’s solo violin Partita in E major.
With his Bach and Mendelssohn arrangements Rachmaninov’s transcriptions virtually ceased. Perhaps the rise of radio and recording indicated that times had changed; in any event, his final masterpieces were to occupy him during the next few years. But in 1934 he wrote a solo piano version of the ‘Nunc dimittis’ from his All-Night Vigil Op 37—the facsimile appeared in a book of reminiscences—but this transcription has never been issued separately; it is uncertain he ever intended it for public performance.
The outbreak of World War II found Rachmaninov at home in America; reminiscences—notably those in his last original composition, the Symphonic Dances of 1940—resurfaced. That same year had begun with revisions of several original pieces, the Moment musical, Op 16 No 5, the Mélodie and Sérénade from Op 3 (Nos 3 and 5) and, dated 3 March, his Humoresque, Op 10 No 5. As with the new version of Lilacs, which appeared later, most of these were done prior to being recorded by him for RCA Victor.
The year 1941 saw the war in Europe spreading rapidly. Hitler ordered the German invasion of Russia on 22 June, and Rachmaninov—deeply concerned that his country was again at war—decided to devote the proceeds from his forthcoming concert season to the Red Army. Who would not think of one’s homeland at such a time? And of one’s formative and peaceful years there? Fifty-five years before—in another country, another continent, another culture, another century—the thirteen-year-old Sergei Rachmaninov began his composing career with a Tchaikovsky transcription, the ‘Manfred’ Symphony for piano duet. On 12 August 1941 the world-famous Sergei Rachmaninov ended his composing career with a transcription for solo piano of Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby (Op 16 No 1).
Rachmaninov’s first recordings for Thomas Edison included transcriptions; his last sessions, in February 1942, included his Bach Suite and a new version of Liebesfreud, together with arrangements by Liszt and Tausig—and, finally, his version of Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby: transcriptions all. Thus did this great artist’s composing and recording careers begin and end with Tchaikovsky—and with transcriptions. Rachmaninov’s record of the Lullaby transcription remained unissued by RCA until it appeared in 1973 as part of a commemorative set to mark his centenary, the celebrations of which have since led to the rehabilitation of almost all of Rachmaninov’s music—including that for solo piano, the instrument of which he was such an incomparable master.
Since the Rachmaninov centenary, it has become the custom rather than the exception for pianists who specialize in music of his time to perform all the Rachmaninov concertos for piano and orchestra. Among the more gifted of such players is Zoltán Kocsis, who recorded them in 1984; later, Kocsis transcribed one of the composer’s most famous melodies, the wordless Vocalise which was originally published as Op 34 No 14 in 1916 (the other songs of the Opus had appeared three years earlier). Rachmaninov never transcribed this haunting melody for piano solo, which is somewhat surprising as he would have first ‘tried it over’ at the keyboard, and he subsequently made transcriptions of the theme for soprano and orchestra and for full orchestra, and appears to have sanctioned several others. In many ways, the Vocalise is the quintessence of Rachmaninov’s melodic genius, and Howard Shelley’s album ends fittingly with an arrangement by one fine Rachmaninov pianist, in tribute to the composer, played by another.
Robert Matthew-Walker © 1991