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RACHMANINOFF: Life, Works, Recordings
by Max Harrison
ISBN 978-0-8264-9312-5
Continuum Press; paperback
422 pages

A number of notable 20th century composers recorded their own compositions for the gramophone including Elgar, Stravinsky, Walton – and Rachmaninoff.

Harrison’s new book illuminatingly and pertinently includes ‘recordings’ in its title. Rachmaninoff’s earliest American recordings were 10 indifferently recorded sides of acoustic recordings for the Edison company and were all released - three separate takes being made of each selection recorded). Rachmaninoff soon left the Edison for RCA Victor’s superior resources. Rachmaninoff had first of all made piano roll recordings of his own Second Piano Concerto for a German firm but it is thought these were never released.

Harrison’s book includes a discography of Rachmaninoff’s own recordings of his own works although, sadly, matrix, take and record numbers are not detailed. Of the nearly 120 earlier RCA Victor acoustic recordings Rachmaninoff made in the 1920s, around 80 of them were rejected; and of the 70 odd later electrical recordings for Victor around 50% were rejected. Of the 40 recordings made from 1931 for Bell Telephone slightly over 50% were issued. Listed too, are full details of all Rachmaninoff’s 35 Ampico piano roll recordings made from 1919 to 1929. All were issued. Intriguingly, Harrison draws comparisons between the composer’s piano roll recordings and his gramophone recordings, often made in parallel. He also comments on the artistry of all Rachmaninoff’s recordings which included music by many other composers besides his own.

*The complete Rachmaninoff RCA Victor recordings were issued in a 10 CD set in 1992 – RCA Victor 09026 61265 2. The accompanying booklet claims that Rachmaninoff was indifferent to the technical quality of sound on the early Edison recordings.

Harrison reminds us that Rachmaninoff excelled "as a fine composer, as one of the greatest pianists in the history of an instrument that has never lacked outstanding players, and he was also a fine conductor." Yet he was basically shy and retiring, insecure and extremely self-critical. His portraits show a tall, slim gaunt figure, his music often demonstrating a morbid fascination with death, through recurring references to the Dies Irae. Yet his music is supremely warm and melodic, and for this Rachmaninoff was often mercilessly slated by the critics and the musical cognoscenti who ought to have know better for as Harrison aptly remarks, when analysing the supremely beautiful Second Symphony, "… Rachmaninoff’s symphonies should be assessed, not in relation to precepts derived from Beethoven and Brahms. With Rachmaninoff different types of thematic material and musical processes, of moods and feelings, are brought into varying degrees of conflict and finally resolved in ways that are personal and formally satisfying. Logically sustained argument has its role but an instinctive drama of the emotions is this music’s chief thrust, its final import being the struggle between representations of the forces of life and death." Like Elgar, Rachmaninoff in the 1920s, felt himself and his music to be out of joint with the times, romanticism was out of fashion, swept away on a tide of vulgarity and atonality.

Harrison offers detailed analyses of all the works and does not hesitate to shoot down crass and uninformed comment by earlier writers. Harrison’s style is observant and accessible. It is possible to comprehend his analyses with only a modicum of technical knowledge and there are 54 musical examples at the back of the book that one can follow with CDs at the ready. Not every conclusion will be accepted. Rachmaninoff’s charming early work, The Rock, for instance is more deserving than Harrison’s dismissive comments and I for one cannot accept his scorn for the ending of the Third Piano Concerto – ""It is regrettable only that in the last presto … Rachmaninoff lapses … into the musical Esperanto(?) of a dash for home urged on by chords from the orchestra at its loudest."

The book has no illustrations save the dour front cover portrait, a sad omission. It does include, besides the discography and musical examples, a chronological list of works, a classified list of works, a bibliography, and two indexes, one of the composer’s works, the other relating to ‘persons and works mentioned.’

Incidentally, Rachmaninov or Rachmaninoff? Since Max Harrison is probably the foremost authority on the composer, and on the backcover of this book Harrison admirer Vladimir Ashkenazy is noted as the President of the Rachmaninoff Society, the question would appear to be settled?

A most satisfying biography and appreciation of one of the 20th century’s greatest musicians – composer, first and foremost, but also a brilliant pianist and a fine conductor.

Ian Lace



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