Sergey Rachmaninov: Solo Piano Recordings, Vol 4
The 14 tracks here are of six titles Rachmaninov recorded for Edison in New York over four days in April 1919. Acoustic recordings, of course, but made by Edison’s patent hill-and-dale process in which the stylus moves up and down the groove rather than from side to side. The advantage is that it captures the piano tone better; the disadvantage is that it produces significantly greater surface noise. This Naxos release is, as far as I am aware, the first time that all these immensely important documents have been released together; certainly their contents have never before been heard so clearly – once, that is, you have become used to the sound of two people walking out of step on Chesil Beach. Ward Marston’s transfers have a higher level of swish than those on RCA but the piano tone (so poor in earlier incarnations that it was assumed that the studio piano was a bad upright) is far superior in depth and detail. Now it is clearly a decent grand (probably a Lauter) and you can hear Rachmaninov in all his glory.
There are two takes of each work – except the Liszt Rhapsody which has three – for no other reason than Edison requiring more than one perfect take so that the stamper could be replaced when it wore out. Each take varies little from the other, though there is a rare fluffed note at 0'22" in the first take of the Scarlatti-Tausig Pastorale. The Liszt Rhapsody is simply stunning, replete with Rachmaninov’s own stylistically anachronistic cadenza. As Jonathan Summers observes in his quite excellent note, ‘his cast-iron technique is breathtaking and the three consecutive takes show its infallibility’. Whether or not you approve of the way he handles Chopin’s Op 42 Waltz or the theme-and variations movement from K331, Rachmaninov’s pianism is utterly and undeniably compelling.
One for the pianophile for sure, but also for the non-specialist to sample the unique gifts and earliest recordings of one of the greatest pianists who has ever lived. Naxos promises a further volume of all the surviving takes of the two other titles Rachmaninov recorded for Edison before he moved to Victor. What treasures – and what a service Naxos has performed in making them available in this form.