Rachmaninoff / The Complete Piano Concertos – Wild / Horenstein

More of the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

More TAS Super Disc Recordings

  • The vinyl is as quiet as we can find it – like most Shaded Dogs and Mercs, Mint Minus Minus is about the best you can hope for (and no marks are audible, which is always nice)
  • We have been readying this shootout for probably twenty years – we had 8 box sets, all in excellent condition, and this set represents some of the best sound we uncovered for these famous TAS List recordings
  • Wild’s playing of the Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini here is one of our favorites on vinyl
  • Some old record collectors (like me) say classical recording quality ain’t what it used to be – here’s all the proof anyone with two working ears and top quality audiophile equipment needs to make the case
  • “Rachmaninoff’s music . . . changes as the composer goes along, moving from Romantic to a tentative Modernism in such works as the fourth piano concerto and the Symphonic Dances. In this sense, he walks a path similar to Puccini’s, incorporating new approaches to extend that [which was] already essentially his. Certainly, the works here show these changes, as the composer picks up more experience, both in writing and in hearing music.”

All FOUR of these vintage RCA Reader’s Digest pressings have the kind of Tubey Magical Midrange that modern records can barely BEGIN to reproduce. Folks, that sound is gone and it sure isn’t showing signs of coming back. If you love hearing INTO a recording, actually being able to “see” the performers, and feeling as if you are sitting in the studio with the band, this is the record for you. It’s what vintage all analog recordings are known for — this sound.

If you exclusively play modern repressings of vintage recordings, I can say without fear of contradiction that you have never heard this kind of sound on vinyl. Old records have it — not often, and certainly not always — but maybe one out of a hundred new records do, and those are some pretty long odds.

What the Best Sides of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto maBox Set Have to Offer Is Not Hard to Hear

  • The biggest, most immediate staging in the largest acoustic space
  • The most Tubey Magic, without which you have almost nothing. CDs give you clean and clear. Only the best vintage vinyl pressings offer the kind of Tubey Magic that was on the tapes in 1966
  • Tight, note-like, rich, full-bodied bass, with the correct amount of weight down low
  • Natural tonality in the midrange — with all the instruments having the correct timbre
  • Transparency and resolution, critical to hearing into the three-dimensional studio space

No doubt there’s more but we hope that should do for now. Playing the record is the only way to hear all of the qualities we discuss above, and playing the best pressings against a pile of other copies under rigorously controlled conditions is the only way to find a pressing that sounds as good as this one does.

The Piano

If you have full-range speakers some of the qualities you may recognize in the sound of the piano are WEIGHT and WARMTH. The piano is not hard, brittle or tinkly. Instead the best copies show you a wonderfully full-bodied, warm, rich, smooth piano.

In other words like a real piano, not a recorded one. This is what we look for in a good piano recording. Bad mastering can ruin the sound, and often does, along with worn out stampers and bad vinyl and five gram needles that scrape off the high frequencies. But a few — a very few — copies survive all such hazards. They manage to reproduce the full spectrum of the piano’s wide range (and of course the wonderful performance of the pianist) on vintage vinyl, showing us the kind of sound we simply cannot find any other way.

What We’re Listening For on The Complete Piano Concertos

  • Energy for starters. What could be more important than the life of the music?
  • The Big Sound comes next — wall to wall, lots of depth, huge space, three-dimensionality, all that sort of thing.
  • Then transient information — fast, clear, sharp attacks, not the smear and thickness so common to these LPs.
  • Next: transparency — the quality that allows you to hear deep into the soundfield, showing you the space and air around all the instruments.
  • Extend the top and bottom and voila, you have The Real Thing — an honest to goodness Hot Stamper.

A Must Own Orchestral Record

This Demo Disc Quality recording should be part of any serious Orchestral Music Collection. Others that belong in that category can be found here.


Side One

Concerto No. 1 in F-Sharp Minor

First Movement: Vivace
Second Movement: Andante
Third Movement: Allegro Vivace

Side Two

Concerto No. 2 In C Minor

First Movement: Moderato
Second Movement: Adagio Sostenuto

Side Three

Third Movement: Allegro Scherzando

Side Four

Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini, Op. 43

Side Five

The Isle Of The Dead / Orchestral Picture After Boecklin’s Painting

Side Six

Concerto No. 3 In D Minor

First Movement: Allegro

Side Seven

Second Movement: Intermezzo: Adagio
Third Movement: Finale: Allegro

Side Eight

Concerto No. 4 in G Minor

First Movement: Allegro Vivace
Second Movement: Largo
Third Movement: Allegro Vivace

Rachmaninoff’s First Four Piano Concertos

by Steve Schwartz, classical.net

Rachmaninoff composed his first concerto when he was 18 but, before your jaw drops in amazement, he revised it substantially at 44. People usually play the revision, as they do here. Still, it’s a remarkable work and manages to retain its youth. It takes from many previous concerto staples – a little from the Tchaikovsky first, the Liszt first, a snippet of the Schumann – but it does so with incredible assurance and without the mish-mosh of pastiche. The opening fanfare, bringing to mind the one in the Tchaikovsky fourth symphony, strikes the same rhetorical note, if not the exact same musical ones. The first lyrical idea lies very close to the main theme of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred, and you find musical ideas, so close as to count as kin, to round off the first subject group here as in the Tchaikovsky. But you’ve only to compare Rachmaninoff’s maiden concerto to something like the Rubinstein concerti to hear the clarity of the ideas, the musical thought expressed directly, without any sort of groping or stuck-on fuzz. Furthermore, it’s not just second-hand news. An individual with a strong artistic profile talks to us, despite all the borrows. This probably comes down to a matter of feeling, more than any identifiable technique. As for me, I hear a kind of rhythmic vigor, like a stamping of heavy boots, in all the concerti that mark each work as Rachmaninoff’s. Also, the piano writing is superb, not always so with Rachmaninoff, probably because of his stupendous keyboard technique. The sonatas, for example, suffer from thick textures arising from the composer’s desire to occupy every finger all the time. The concerto has plenty of power, especially with Wild at the keyboard, but the textures always tell. My favorite movement, however, is probably the second, with a gorgeous melody, fully the equal of any in the later concerti. It represents a real risk, in that it threatens to degenerate into mere noodling. Yet it never sinks, and it retains the air of having been made up on the spot.

The second concerto blows away the derivative dust of the first. Rachmaninoff not only has found his characteristic voice, he proclaims it. Considering its genesis in the composer’s creative and emotional breakdown, one hears no hesitance in it at all. It has become in my mind the archetypal Romantic piano concerto. As I say, I heard Richter first, and I’ve never heard him bettered. Most other pianists come across as prettier or wimpier, with the notable exception of Rachmaninoff himself. I might as well confess to my emotional superficiality: the opening makes or breaks the work for me. Richter starts at some dynamic just this side of audibility and builds such tension that the opening breaks out like a mighty torrent punching through a dam. The themes throughout the concerto are memorable, every single one of them, and it all sounds like one gigantic song. Nevertheless, one hears all sorts of nasty remarks lobbed in its direction, as if Rachmaninoff has scammed the innocent music lover, who doesn’t understand the Higher Aspects of Art anyway. It’s kind of a Rodney Dangerfield of concertos. Having tried myself, I can attest that writing tunes of such eloquence isn’t as easy as it may appear. If it were, Rachmaninoff would have undoubtedly written more of them. Nevertheless, for the musically pure who condescend to Rachmaninoff at all, it’s the third concerto that gets the respect. If the recordings provide any evidence, the third movement seems the hardest to bring off. Getting the opening march tempo is first problem. I usually prefer something very deliberate, which picks up speed as it goes along. In this concerto, the more weight, the more deliberation, the better. Horenstein and Wild do something very interesting (for all I know, it may even be in the score, although I’ve not heard this in any other interpretation). They begin, for me, a bit light, but take on greater weight and anxiety as they go. It has the interesting effect of finding something of the unfamiliar in what you may have begun to take for granted, and the stratagem refocuses you with a snap.

One year after the première (1909, New York Symphony Society, under Damrosch), Rachmaninoff played the third with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Mahler. Mahler praised it – praise which Rachmaninoff cherished to the end of his days. Most writers consider this Rachmaninoff’s best work, mainly because he creates an entire concerto out of very few ideas which appear in at least two of the three movements. That’s not the only reason, of course, but it’s the one that keeps coming up. To me, it’s full of good things, like a stuffed Christmas stocking. But, for me, it doesn’t soar as high as the second. I think the tunes not quite as distinguished, although at that level, I’m probably niggling. I admire the orchestration as well, something that Rachmaninoff doesn’t get enough credit for. He’s a genius orchestrator, who also happens to be not only capable but surprising. I also like the asymmetry of the music. I’m not always sure when a phrase will stop, or how. You have your choice of just about every virtuoso who ever recorded for this concerto, and I own several accounts: Horowitz (1951), Rachmaninoff on RCA, Weissenberg with Prêtre, Janis and Munch, as well as this one.

The fourth piano concerto, like the first, is hardly talked about, except in terms of failure. John Culshaw, in his pioneering, illuminating essay on Rachmaninoff and Medtner, slams the fourth as unconvincingly “cheerful,” a trait I wouldn’t have ascribed to the concerto if I’d lived to a ripe old age. I sink my credibility and say that, for me, it’s a great work, as are all the Rachmaninoff concerti. Again, it interests me as an example of Rachmaninoff’s modernist extensions of his late-Romantic idiom. Emotionally, as Culshaw demonstrates, it’s not as straightforward as the other four. A grotesque vein runs through Rachmaninoff’s music, and he gives it full rein here. Unlike the second and third, the fourth is neither heroic nor epic. It’s a concerto of worry, nerves, and trouble. Rachmaninoff doesn’t bother to assume the mantle of bard here, but speaks in a voice closer to his own character. The opening tries to bound out like a conqueror and never makes it, due to the neurotic chattering of the trumpets. In the second movement, a melody dazedly wanders trying to find harmonic stability and never does. The finale comes off as a brilliant phantasmagoria, with the orchestration especially inventive. Again, the music looks for a place to rest without luck, even trying to begin the whole concerto all over again. One hears adumbrations of the Rhapsody and the Symphonic Dances, but the music comes across as more raw. It turns out, if you listen to this work for several days, that Rachmaninoff has organized this work almost as thoroughly as the third concerto. Again, he takes from the same small bag of ideas for the entire concerto. The second, lyrical subject of the first movement derives from the main subject. Subsidiary ideas from the first movement show up in the second and third. Such is Rachmaninoff’s invention, however, that it’s hard to catch him at it, except where he gives you obvious hints in the finale.


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