========= from the cover ==========
The Ampico piano recordings
The historic performances presented on this disc were reproduced on a specially-adapted Estonia 9' concert grand, and recorded at the Kingsway Hall, London, in 1978-9.
Most of the music on this disc was composed before Rachmaninov's self-imposed exile from Russia in 1917. His life until then, from the time of his graduation from the Moscow Conservatoire in 1892, had been occupied almost wholly with composition. He received help and encouragement from Tchaikovsky, and believed himself to have been much influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov, although he did not actually study with him. During this first part of his life he was also well known as a conductor, and for a short spell was at the Bolshoi Theatre. But of course his piano playing, particularly of his own music, was also highly regarded, and he undertook a number of tours both as pianist and conductor; these included visits to France, England and America.
Rachmaninov was very conscious of the changes taking place in Russia at the time of the 1917 Revolution, and by March of that year had decided to leave with his family. This had to be delayed because Europe was still at war, but on 23 December he left to undertake a series of concerts in Scandinavia. In 1918 he settled in America and, at the age of 45, embarked on the career of piano virtuoso which he pursued for the rest of his life.
The opus 3 pieces and the Barcarolle and Humoresque from op.10 are works dating from just after his student days. It always annoyed him that the composition by which he was best known, the Prelude in N sharp minor, was a piece written when he was only 19. The original Prelude (op.3 no.2) became the first of a set of twenty-four, in all the major and minor keys. The G minor Prelude of op.23 dates from 1901, and the Etudes-Tableaux, op.39 were composed between 1916 and 1917, the last music he wrote before leaving Russia. Lilacs is one of a group of songs written in 1902, the year of his marriage to his cousin, Natalya Satina.
Rachmaninov's recording career began in 1919. In April of that year Edison offered him a contract to make ten sides for the gramophone. By the end of the year he had fallen out with the inventor, and signed an exclusive contract with Victor which was to continue until his death. But the gramophone contracts did not Preclude an artist from recording performances 'on perforated piano rolls'. Ampico had entered the reproducing piano race later than its great American rival, Duo-Art, and desperately needed a world famous artist in its catalogue if it was to be taken seriously. In 1919 it made overtures to Rachmaninov to persuade him to make some test recordings. These recordings were processed, and Rachmaninov was invited to the Ampico studio to hear the finished music rolls. He listened, apparently utterly unimpressed, but just as he was about to leave he is reputed to have turned to the Ampico officials and said: 'Gentlemen, I have just heard myself play'. What a marvellous testimonial! This was the beginning of an association which would last for ten years and produce 34 music roll recordings. Some of the earliest recordings are included here.
All the features of Rachmaninov's playing we know so well from his gramophone recordings are heard in these recordings; his unique sense of rhythm, the soaring phrases, his highly individual use of the pedal, even something as elusive as his touch, are reproduced. The CD opens with a breathtakingly beautiful performance of the Elegie. This track is particularly valuable since he did not record the piece for the gramophone. The Melodic is played in its original form (on disc, Rachmaninov presents a revised version using an elaborate and chromatically more interesting accompaniment), and the Serenade captures the spirit of his playing to perfection. He is so obviously enjoying Himself, stretching out a phrase here, rushing into another there.
He has the listener on the edge of his seat, wondering what will come next, such is the spontaneity and freshness of playing. And yet the interpretation is very carefully considered and calculated. His two disc recordings differ only in detail. Pedal effects which are barely audible in the gramophone recording made only a year or so before this are reproduced identically here, and with great clarity, adding considerably to the interest of the performance.
Two characteristics which the gramophone did not capture well are the sheer size and power of his playing. The full range of tone, from the most delicate pianissimo to a very full fortissimo, was available to the Ampico engineers, and in Rachmaninov's roll recordings they took full advantage of it. Listen to his splendidly capricious performance of the Humoresque. The explosive accents, the surges of power, the fullness and warmth of his mezzo forte playing, as well as the lightness of his pianissimi, are all instantly recognisable. The Etude-Tableau, op.39 no.4 is one of the gems of the set, and a work he did not record elsewhere. The beautiful Lilacs transcription is stunning playing, completely subordinated to the poetry of the music - a description one could perhaps well apply to all his performances. The Polka de V.R. is based on a theme by Rachmaninov's father, Vasili, and was composed in 1911. The interpretation shows Rachmaninov at his most witty and is full of delightful surprises.
When Rachmaninov left Russia all his money was confiscated and his country estate lost. He arrived in New York on 10 November 1918 with the need for a regular income to provide security for his family and to give his daughters an education. Before he had even set foot on the American continent, he had had three offers of work: the post of conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a proposal of twenty-five piano recitals, and the opportunity to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a hundred and ten concerts in thirty weeks. Although the proposition from Boston seemed the most attractive, not surprisingly the number of concerts worried him, and he eventually declined all three offers. His final decision was to start a new career as a concert pianist at the age of forty-five.
His first original composition to be completed in the West, the Fourth Piano Concerto, appeared in 1926, but received only a lukewarm reception and he subsequently revised it. He had however made a number of transcriptions of works by other composers and he recorded all these for Ampico about the time of their publication. On this disc we hear six of them, the Kreisler Liebesfreud being the most elaborate and also a particularly fine recording. Of this, the Boston Evening Transcript reported at the time of his first performance: 'The things that the transcriber has not done to the work of the composer would be hard to discover [and yet] through the surprising transitions, the outre harmonies, the startling cadenzas, the sudden modulations whisking the hearer from the expected course, the final glissando, the Kreisler themes, and extensions of the Kreisler moods as well, were always in evidence.'
The process of making piano roll recordings seems to have greatly interested Rachmaninov, and he worked in close collaboration with the Ampico Editor-in-Chief, Edgar Fairchild, a pianist in his own right whom Godowsky pronounced as America's greatest hope for a native virtuoso. It was probably the facility to be able to make slight adjustments to the finished roll which appealed to Rachmaninov. While Fairchild was with Ampico he laid down that no important classical recording should even be advertised until the editing process, which involved both his and the artist's final approval of the finished roll, was completed. This degree of care is apparent in virtually all Ampico recordings, and it must also have been a great comfort for artists to have a measure of control over the issue of their rolls. No matter what modern critics may say of piano roll recordings, we can be confident that the performances heard here are exactly as Rachmaninov intended them to be.
The last six items heard here are transcriptions. The Schubert song tells us a good deal about the flights of imagination to which the composer could rise with his irresistible urge to alter harmonies as well as soup up the accompaniment triplets in a way Schubert would never have dreamed of. The Star-Spangled Banner is an unpublished transcription by Rachmaninov which he first performed in December 1918 at the opening recital of his first American tour after he and his family had left Russia.
The recordings on this disc span almost the whole of Rachmaninov1 s Ampico recording career. Although immense care had always been taken with the editing process there is no doubt that the quality of the Ampico roll did improve, resulting by the mid-Twenties in more polished and life-like results which could rival and in some cases surpass the best contemporary disc recordings.
- Denis Hall