DAVID MELLOR: Rachmaninov’s remarkable melodic gifts, especially his ability to write piano concertos of mesmerizing power and charisma, should always have secured his reputation…but it didn’t
Sergey Rachmaninov Pianist and Conductor: Legendary Recordings 1919-1942
Rachmaninov’s 150th birthday in early April means his reputation as a composer is probably better than ever, especially since his arrival in the West in late 1917.
Rachmaninov’s remarkable melodic gifts, especially his ability to write piano concertos of mesmerizing power and charisma, should always have secured his reputation by right. But it wasn’t like that.
During his 24 years in the West, Rachmaninov (above) composed only six pieces. Partly because of the pressures of his career as a notable recitalist, but mostly because he was so depressed in reception that his music was all too often received by critics who viewed him as an eloquent and superficial melody smith of an earlier era.
Grove’s Dictionary is today regarded as the most authoritative of all commentaries on music and musicians. However, in the 1954 edition, Rachmaninov was dismissed in this way, calling his works “monotonous in structure” and “consisting mainly of artificial and flowing tunes.” His success, it says, is “probably not lasting.”
Fortunately, there is little such nonsense nowadays and Rachmaninov is widely regarded as one of the best composers of the 20th century, even if his romanticism is not universally approved.
“Rachmaninov’s remarkable melodic gifts, especially his ability to write piano concertos of mesmerizing power and charisma, should always have secured his reputation by right”
What has suffered, however, 80 years after his death, is any real appreciation for his remarkable talents as a performer, both as a conductor (chief conductor at the Bolshoi etc.), but especially as a pianist.
In this important year it is certainly appropriate to take the time to listen to some of his many recordings, beautifully delivered in a 9-CD bargain box from Naxos, which not only showcase his powers in his own music, but also as servant of others.
The transfers by Ward Marston are all excellent, while the quality of some recordings of the piano concertos, especially the Third, needs no apology. These recordings, made between 1920 and 1942, and some equally remarkable piano rolls, easily explain why in 2010, when 100 concert pianists were invited to vote for the most important pianist of the recorded era, Rachmaninov finished comfortably out front.
Get this set and find out why.