The Piano Files

The Composer’s Voice: Rachmaninoff plays Rachmaninoff

Hearing a composer play their own works can be a revelatory experience.
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Rachmaninoff recording

After my previous post featuring pianists who knew Brahms that explored how different these artists’ performances are from what we usually hear today, I thought it might be time to hear recordings made by a famous composer himself. It is invaluable to hear the playing of artists that a composer liked, but it is especially fascinating to hear first-hand (or is it “first-ear”?) how a great musician chose to interpret his own works.

The Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff set down accounts of his four piano concertos and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini between 1929 and 1940, performances that are among the miracles of recorded pianism. It was my discovery of these recordings in my teens that launched me into an exploration of historical recordings: hearing a composer perform his own pieces was a concept that I considered mind-blowing (and I still do).

The fact that Rachmaninoff was such a superb pianist and recorded so many of his compositions is something that should be appreciated by all piano students and professional pianists, not least because his Third Concerto is today perhaps the most popular of all piano concertos. As the great pianist György Sándor said in a filmed interview, “Luckily he recorded all of the concertos — and unluckily, many people don’t listen to those.” Sándor added that the composer’s works tend to be played with more sentimentality as opposed to emotionality — quite differently from the composer’s own performances.

While many music teachers and academics stress the study of historical texts about how to perform music from Bach’s, Mozart’s, and Beethoven’s time, when it comes to the Romantic and post-Romantic eras, there seems not to be the same emphasis placed on exploring recordings made by people who knew composers or by the actual composers themselves. I won’t soon forget Stephen Hough lamenting that a student who was playing a movement of Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto at a master class knew that the composer had recorded the work but had not taken the time to listen to it. Why would musicians not want to hear how composers themselves played the works they were wanting to perform?

That said: there are earwitness accounts that the playing of Rachmaninoff on his commercial records was not quite the same as his pianism in concert, that his official discs found him somewhat more restrained than he was in live performance. There is some new evidence to support this: a few years ago, a private recording was released of the composer at the piano in conductor Eugene Ormandy’s living room, playing through his new Symphonic Dances, which Ormandy was to premiere a few weeks later. In this “secret” recording (it seems likely that he was unaware he was being recorded), we can hear Rachmaninoff playing with far more expansive phrasing and depth of nuance (and with some singing!) than we hear in his more controlled but still wonderfully expressive studio recordings. The video below features some other recordings but includes some precious moments from this truly fascinating historical document of Rachmaninoff at the piano:

If Rachmaninoff played more freely in concert and in private (as is the case with many musicians), it is no reason to discount his studio recordings, which also feature stupendous pianism and a very different approach to how we usually hear his works played. There is incredible music-making in his entire discography (over the course of 23 years, he produced enough records to fill 10 CDs): a marvelous array of tonal colors, magnificently burnished phrasing, beautiful texturing (not nearly as thick and heavy as pianists tend to play his music today), and masterful voicing.

This superb 1940 account of his Melodie in E, Op. 3 No. 3, has long lines, rich tone, magical pedaling, sensual voicing (notice the interplay between left and right hands), and soaring phrasing.

Another 1940 recording of a work that is quite different in mood — his Humoresque, Op. 10 No. 5 — reveals the same qualities and more: what impeccable dexterity with glistening tone and no harshness in rapid passages, along with a strong sense of rhythm and expansive rubato that is exquisitely coordinated with the musical structure.

We know that Rachmaninoff appreciated several different pianists’ performances of his works: Josef Hofmann, Benno Moiseiwitsch, and Vladimir Horowitz were all greatly admired by the composer, although they all had their individual styles and personal tonal palettes. This helps us to recognize that a given composer might not have had a singular, fixed approach to each work they wrote. However, these three pianists also played differently than how we usually hear Rachmaninoff’s works interpreted in our current age. Given that we have the opportunity to hear the composer himself — as well as some of his favorite performers — why would we not make every effort to listen to and study these precious historical recordings?

It is nothing short of miraculous that we can today click on a single button to hear in one fell swoop almost two and a half hours of one of the greatest composers playing through his complete works for piano and orchestra. This is something not to be taken for granted, but rather is worthy of dedicated attention so as to experience the unique playing of a composer whose works are still considered among the greatest ever written.

Website: thepianofiles.com

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