RACHMANINOFF:  Works for Piano and Orchestra
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18. Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30.  
Sergei Rachmaninoff, pianist/Philadelphia Orchestra;Eugene Ormandy and Leopold Stokowski (No. 2) cond.
NAXOS  8.110601 (B) (ADD)  TT:  65:10

Piano Concerto No. 1 in F# Minor, Op. 1.  Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor, Op. 40.  Rhapsody on a Theme of  Paganini, Op. 43.
Sergei Rachmaninoff, pianist/Philadelphia Orch; Eugene Ormandy, cond.
Naxos 8.110602  (B) (ADD) TT:  71:13

These are touchstone recordings—music by one of the supreme masters of the keyboard played by the compose—and a glimpse into performance style of the past.  Rachmaninoff was not one to dawdle in his own music.  Introspection is there of course, but not to the extent of most pianists of the past two decades.  Anyone who might question Rachmaninoff's supreme mastery of the keyboard has but to listen to the  first-movement cadenza of the First Concerto.  It is surprising that Rachmaninoff made so many cuts in the Third Concerto.  He makes just two rather brief cuts (4 and 2 bars) in the first movement, 13 bars in the second, and two large cuts in the final movement, 23 and 13 bars.  He also plays the "easier" first-movement cadenza with the usual 2 bar cut, mentioned before, towards the end.  Surprising he made all of these cuts; it would not seem space was the problem as the original issue took five double-sided 78s with side 10 blank.

The earliest recording is Concerto No. 2 from April 1929.  The Paganini Rhapsody was recorded in December 1934,  sessions for both Concerto No. 1 and No. 3 were held  in December 1939 and February 1940,  and Concerto No. 4 was recorded in December 1941. With the exception of the Rhapsody which was recorded in RCA's Church Street studios in Camden, New Jersey, all were recorded in Philadelphia's Academy of Music.  Sound quality on Rachmaninoff's original recordings, including solo works, always has been rather disappointing with a lack of warmth and resonance. Transfers on these new Naxos releases are by Mark Obert-Thorn, and they are superb, as were transfers by Ward Marston in RCA's now deleted 10-CD RCA set of Rachmaninoff's complete recordings (61265).  The only transfer that sounds better elsewhere is the Concerto No. 4 on Claremont (see Roger Dettmer's review on this site). Whatever transfer process was  used by Donald Graham,  it works—the concerto is heard with  more tonal beauty than ever before.

These performances should be in every serious collection; Naxos is to be commended for presenting them so well, and at budget price to boot.  When originally issued, these performances took 39 78rpm sides (6 for Concerto No. 1, 10 for Concerto No. 2, 9 for Concerto No. 3, 8 for Concerto No. 4, 6 for Rhapsody); now we have all of this music  in excellent sound at minimal cost without the inconvenience of 78rpm side changes/interruptions.  Amazing when you stop to think about it!

These are important recordings.  Rachmaninoff never permitted broadcasts of his live performances and in those days pocket-sized recorders of course weren't available for illicit taping.  He appeared a number of times with the Chicago Symphony.  In 1909 he conducted his symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead and then appeared as soloist in his Piano Concerto No. 2, with Frederick Stock conducting.  He also played this concerto in 1932, again with Stock who conducted  most  of Rachmaninoff's performances in Chicago. In 1920 and 1932  he played his Concerto No. 3; in 1935, 1940 and 1943 he played his Paganini Rhapsody, and in 1941 played his Concerto No. 4.  The Paganini Rhapsody performances of 1940 and 1943 were complemented by Beethoven's First Concerto.  The great days of the past, indeed!  There also was a CSO performance in March 1941 when Rachmaninoff appeared solely as conductor, leading The Bells and his Third Symphony. No recording, unfortunately!

R.E.B.(Sept. 2002)