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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Rare Piano Transcriptions
Julia Severus (piano)
rec, studioboerne45, Berlin, July 2016 NAXOS 8.573468 [73:26]
One of life’s little musical mysteries is why, with the exception of the Vocalise and perhaps a couple of others, the 73 songs of that melodist-supreme Rachmaninov remain resolutely little-known to a wider classical music audience. Yet, not only were they all written during the richest compositional vein of Rachmaninov's life 1890-1916 but, as Rupert Christiansen put it so well in his 2014 review of a 3-disc set of the complete songs; “They reflect [Rachmaninov’s] superb pianism and an emotional temperament that inclined to the plangently romantic, but most significantly they seem to be organically imbued with the spirit of his homeland and the intonations of his native language”. So, if you like Rachmaninov, these songs often embody the very finest of his music. But if the songs as songs are still struggling for a foothold in the repertoire what chance does a disc of them transcribed for solo piano have?
That was my concern before listening to this disc for the first time. But this was one of those joyous and rare occasions, where you put down your reviewer’s pen and just delight in the utter brilliance of the music-making. This transcends simple ‘arranging’ and instead enters the realm of being a disc worthy of being considered as ‘new’ music by Rachmaninov for solo piano. If your shelves groan under the weight of another set of the Preludes or Etudes-Tableaux then I urge you to try this disc - it really is like hearing over an hour of unknown Rachmaninov. All the credit for the sense of revelation this disc brings must go to pianist Julia Severus. I had not heard Berlin/Paris-based Severus’ work before and I am hugely impressed. Not only does she encompass the huge technical range of these transcriptions but she wears the music’s idiom like a glove.
These song transcriptions are the work of seven different arrangers - Severus contributes three of her own - the best known of the rest being Rachmaninov’s own of ‘Lilacs’ and ‘Daisies’ both of which turn up on collections of Rachmaninov’s own transcriptions of works by himself and other composers. I must admit that apart from Alexander Siloti, the names of the other arrangers are unknown to me. But part of the delight in listening to this disc - very well-planned and programmed too - is hearing how different composers approach the task of melding vocal and keyboard lines into a coherent and convincing form. So, as Severus’ own excellent liner note points out, sometimes the transcriptions leave the musical material almost unchanged; as in the aforementioned ‘Daisies’ but also in Siloti’s take on ‘My Child, you are as beautiful as a Flower’ [track 9] and Alexander Schaefer’s five offerings including ‘These Summer Nights’ and ‘How much it hurts’. Conversely Sergey Kursanov - the most ‘prolific’ arranger here with nine offerings, Dmitri Paperno – ‘Night is Mournful’ [track 13], and Isaak Mikhnovsky – ‘How fair is this place’ [track 1] seek to burden the player even more with expanded range and altered voicings and added filigree work.
Whisper who dares - I actually think I enjoyed these songs more in this transcribed form than I have in the past in their original guise. For the purpose of this review I dipped into the well- respected Ashkenazy/Soderstrom set on Decca and the Howard Shelley led collection on Chandos/Brilliant. There will always be trade-offs between performances and how well one feels performances capture the spirit of the music. In ‘Spring Waters’ Severus is substantially steadier than Ashkenazy - her babbling brook is not as sparkling or dynamic as on the older disc but here again she captures that sense of ‘happiness remembered in adversity’ that embodies so much of Rachmaninov’s art. In the Kursanov transcription of ‘Do not believe me, friend’ [track 18] Severus builds, over the sub two minute time frame, a climax of considerable technical and emotional power - which is followed, in a good example of the skilled ordering of this disc, by Rachmaninov’s own translucent version of ‘Daisies’.
Throughout the disc, the playing is aided by an impressively truthful and unfussy recording. The piano is quite close, without being oppressively so and the studio environment is supportive without adding excess resonance which might bloat the piano sound or blur the detail. I see that Severus acted as producer of this disc as well as note writer, transcriber and performer and it’s hard not to say that she has excelled in every role. Of the 21 song transcriptions, 18 are new to the catalogue in these versions - only the Rachmaninov and Silotti are already in the catalogue.
On top of that we are given a premiere of the ‘Intermezzo’ from Aleko and then as a closing treat Rachmaninov’s transcription of his very early Orchestral Suite in D minor. Although not a premiere recording I must admit this was completely new to me in any form. Wikipedia says that the orchestral score was rediscovered in 2002 which led to a previously unattributed piano suite being listed as Rachmaninov's own transcription of the 4-movement work. The key of D minor remained one of the composer’s favourites; the 1st Symphony, the 3rd Piano Concerto, the 2nd Piano Trio and 1st Piano Sonata all using this key too. This has been previously recorded by artists such as the hugely impressive Denis Matsuev and Ekaterina Litvintseva neither of which I have heard. So, heard in isolation, Serverus’ is another impressive performance. As a work, it strikes me that this is more individual than much of early Rachmaninov - more striking than the adjacent (also D minor) Youth Symphony, for example. It is quite substantial too - the four movements running to twenty-one minutes. There are real fingerprints of the mature composer in the brooding B minor Lento even if the Menuetto that follows and the closing Allegro lack the same level of individuality or inspiration. The closing allegro in particular tries to fuse a salon-esque festive finale with a lyrical central section. It is hard not to hear the outer sections as rather banal. But as a generous ‘bonus’ at the end of an already impressive disc I was very pleased to hear it indeed. Hopefully, a recording company will record the orchestral original before too long.
Alongside Severus’ interesting essay, Keith Anderson contributes a valuable note on the various transcribers. Allied to the quality of the recording and the all-round excellence of the music-making on display as well as the generous playing time this makes for a very enjoyable disc indeed. The catalogue contains a disc of song transcriptions made and played by the late great Earl Wild, but that aside this seems to hold a pretty unique place in the Rachmaninov discography. As such, admirers of this composer really need not delay - this is an excellent recital in every respect.
How fair is this place Op.21 No.71 [2:22]
Oh no, my love, forsake me not! Op.4 No.12 [1:35]
In the silence of the mysterious night Op.4 No.33 [2:51]
These Summer nights Op.14 No.52 [2:11]
She is as lovely as Noon Op.14 No.94 [4:06]
Spring Waters Op.14 No.113 [2:20]
I am no prophet Op.21 No.112 [1:41]
It's Time Op.14 No.124 [1:30]
My Child, you are as beautiful as a flower Op.8 No.25 [2:03]
Lilacs Op.21 No.56 [2:34]
How much it hurts Op.21 No.122 [1:41]
Why is my sick heart beating so frantically (excerpt from Alfred de Musset) 3 [2:21]
Night is mournful Op.26 No.127 [2:28]
He took all from me Op.26 No.24 [1:21]
All things pass by Op.26 No.152 [2:00]
Let us leave, beloved Op.26 No.54 [2:26]
I wait for you Op.14 No.14 [2:12]
Do not believe me, friend Op.14 No.74 [1:40]
Daisies Op.38 No.36 [2:17]
Do not sing to me, beautiful maiden Op.4 No.44 [5:19]
To my Sorrow Op.8 No.44 [2:39]
Nocturne (Intermezzo from Aleko) 4 [2:37]
Suite in D minor6 [21:13]
Isaak Mikhnovsky1 (1914-1978)
Alexander Schaefer2 (1866-1914)
Sergey Kursanov4 (1947-2006)
Alexander Siloti5 (1863-1945)
Sergey Rachmaninov6 (1873-1943)
Dmitri Paperno7 (b. 1929)
Founding Editor Rob Barnett Senior Editor
John Quinn Seen & Heard Editor Emeritus Bill Kenny Editor in Chief
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David Barker MusicWeb Founder Len Mullenger