RACHMANINOFF:  Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor, Op. 44 (1927 version). Monna Vanna (Opera in One Act).
Sherrill Milnes, baritone; Seth McCoy, tenor; Blythe Walker, soprano; Nickolas Karousatos, baritone; Jon Thorsteinsson, tenor/Iceland Opera Chorus.  William Black, pianist/Iceland Symphony Orchestra/Igor Buketoff, cond.

CHANDOS 8987  (F) (DDD)  TT:  73:38

RACHMANINOFF:  Piano Concerto No. 1 in F# Minor, Op. 1 (original version). Piano Pieces (Romance; Prelude; MÈlodie; Gavotte; Lento; PrÈlude; Kanon). 
Karina Wisniewska, pianist/Moscow Radio Symphony Orch/Vladimir Fedoseyev, cond.

MUSICA CLASSIC 780010-2  (F) (DDD)  TT:  51:47

Currently there are but eleven recordings of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 1, even fewer of his Piano Concerto No. 4, listed in  Schwann/Opus plus a few other recordings of both in integral sets of all four concertos.  All  are  of the revised versions, so of particular interest are these CDs of the First and Fourth concertos that present them "as originally conceived" by the composer.  These  are of enormous interest for those who love Rachmaninoff's music.  Performance times are quite different; the original version of the First Concerto is about 6 minutes longer, the Fourth Concerto about seven minutes longer than average performances of the revised versions.  Thanks to the Rachmaninoff Society, we are informed there were previous recordings of each prior to CD

Concerto No. 1 in F# Minor, Op. 1 actually isn't the first music Rachmaninoff composed.  He had written several piano pieces as Op. 1 but withdrew them.  The First Concerto is derived from sketches from a concerto in c minor, the key he later used for his famous Concerto No. 2.  The Concerto No. 1, dedicated to his nephew Alexander Siloti who also was one of his teachers,  dates  from 1889 and was  published in 1892 in the composer's arrangement for two pianos.  There were a number of revisions and the first performance ( first movement  only)  took place March 17, 1892 with the composer as soloist  at the Moscow Conservatory.  Shortly before Rachmaninoff's  departure from Russia in 1917  he  revised the concerto extensively and premiered it  in its entirety  in New York in 1919.  The  three-movement "original" First Concerto had its premiere March 23, 1993 with pianist Karina Wisniewska and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra under Yuri Ahronovitch; the same pianist is heard in this only recording, only  with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra directed by Vladimir Fedoseyev. 

There are radical differences between the original version and the one everyone knows.  The first movement begins the same in both;  after that there are numerous changes.  In the original  there are two rather extensive orchestral interludes  not found in the final version; the dramatic orchestral introduction to the big cadenza is out, the beginning of the cadenza is different as is the ending of the movement.  The second movement has fewer alterations than the first and third.  The dramatic opening of the third movement is missing in the original, and there is more  solo ornamentation than in the revised version.  To these ears it is the last movement that benefits most from revision.  However,  the original version of all three movements contains episodes of great beauty  some of which  perhaps should have been retained.

The Concerto No. 4 had a long gestation period.  Rachmaninoff planned it as early as 1914, but the demands of public performance, moving to America and other obligations limited his time available for composing.  The Concerto No. 4 was scheduled to be premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra (with the composer as soloist of course) in 1926.  Rachmaninoff hastened to complete the work, and the event was a disaster.  Rachmaninoff, always sensitive to criticism,  made a number of cuts and revisions.  In 1941 he prepared a "final" version, revising the third movement  extensively, and recorded it with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. It is understandable why this is the least-performed of Rachmaninoff's concertos; it lacks the big tunes of the second and third, and is his most episodic.  In the hands of a superb pianist it can be highly effective;  recordings by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Earl Wild surely prove this.  

The "original version" of the Fourth Concerto is played by William Black with the Iceland  Symphony conducted by Igor Buketoff who provides rather extensive program notes about the manifold difficulties in performing the original score,  justifying his altered orchestration.  He also opts for slow tempi.  As in the First Concerto, there are many changes, some quite major,  particularly in the final movement.  Buketoff has his Rachmaninoff credentials; he met the composer when but 11 and  had considerable contact with him in the following years.  He attended rehearsals with the composer in 1927 when Leopold Stokowski was to conduct the premiere in Philadelphia of  Three Russian Songs, Op. 41. Some collectors may remember Buketoff's  pioneering early '70s RCA recording of Rachmaninoff's The Spring, Op. 20 (LSC 3051).

Performances are superb on both of these CDs.  Karina Wisniewska, a pianist  new to me,  is magnificent in the First Concerto, with strong, sensitive  accompaniment from the Russian orchestra directed by Fedoseyev.   William Black acquits himself admirably in the Fourth Concerto; one can speculate on what he would do with a more dynamic conductor.  Wisniewska's CD is appropriately filled out with ten early piano pieces  Rachmaninoff composed in 1887 around the time of  the original version of the First Concerto; four of these were his original Opus 1.  Considering the quality of Wisniewska's playing, it is unfortunate more Rachmaninoff wasn't included as the playing time of the CD is but  51:47.   The Chandos CD has a more generous filler, the premiere recording of  the first act of Rachmaninoff's incomplete  opera Monna Vanna,  which existed only in a piano/vocal  score, orchestrated and  completed by conductor Buketoff  at the request of Sophie Satin, Rachmaninoff's sister-in-law. Buketoff  conducted the premiere in in 1984; this recording was made in 1991.. 

Sound on both of these CDs is exceptionally fine, and both  are indispensable for those who love music of Rachmaninoff. They will complement  your recordings of the standard versions and you'll  doubtless find yourself returning to them often. The Chandos CD is readily available; the Musica Classic CD probably will be  hard to find. (also see REVIEW of Ondine recording of concertos 1 and 4).

R.E.B. (OCT. 2000)