into the hottest composer of the middle/late 1990s through the telling of Helfgott's life story in
. It is easy to forget, amid the hoopla surrounding Helfgott's eccentric recording of
himself was one of the most celebrated pianists of his day and a highly regarded conductor as well, who left behind many hours of his own recordings, performing not only his work but that of other composers as well.
was born to a well-to-do family, but his father squandered most of the family fortune. He took his first piano lessons from his mother, and eventually attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The dissolution of his parents' marriage, a product of his father's financial follies and the tragic death of his sister from diphtheria, led to a virtual collapse of the family, and Rachmaninoff's
failure of all of his examinations. He moved to Moscow and attended the Moscow Conservatory, beginning his music training anew, and also had contact, through his teacher Nicolai Zverev, with the leading composers of the day, including Tchaikovsky
. In 1887, he began composing, but it wasn't until three years later, after a tumultuous split with his teacher, that he began to write music in earnest.
In 1892, following his graduation, Rachmaninoff
was awarded a publishing contract, and soon composed his best known solo piano work, the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, which came to be demanded so often from audiences for the rest of his career that he quickly came to tire of performing it. In 1895, Rachmaninoff
completed his first major work, the Symphony No. 1 in D minor. The premiere, conducted by Glazunov
(who is said to have been drunk during the performance), was a disaster. The piece was attacked mercilessly by the critics, and in the wake of this debacle, Rachmaninoff
developed a mental block to composition that lasted for six years.
He began making his living as a conductor -- most notably at the Bolshoi Theatre -- and was very successful at it, but was unable to return to composition. Finally, four years later, in desperation, he sought help from a doctor who specialized in the treatment of mental illness with hypnosis. These were successful, and the first major result was the Second Piano Concerto. The work was premiered successfully by the composer in November of 1901, and he never looked back. Rachmaninoff
spent the next 16 years as a composer, writing success after success, and managed to continue conducting on occasion as well. He also made his first tour of America, on which he performed a new work, the Third Piano Concerto, which was hugely popular. He proved so popular as a performer, and the demand for his concerts was so high, that he literally exhausted himself, and he had to retreat to Switzerland for an extended rest.
The Russian Revolution turned Rachmaninoff
back into a performing musician. He and his family were forced to leave everything behind when they exited Russia surreptitiously in late 1917. He immediately set about marketing his most valuable asset, his reputation as a concert pianist. After a short time in Switzerland, he decided instead to come to America, where there was a huge demand for his work as a concert pianist. He settled in New York and played some 40 concerts in the first four months after his arrival -- he also began recording, initially with Edison and then with RCA-Victor, in a relationship that lasted more than two decades. Rachmaninoff
started to concertize in Europe again in the early 1920s, and the family returned there during the middle of the decade.
He resumed composition beginning in 1925 with the Piano Concerto No. 4, which never achieved the popularity of his earlier concertos, despite years spent revising the piece. There were works for solo piano and new orchestral pieces, including a Third Symphony and the delightful Rhapsody On a Theme of Paganini. As the war clouds once again gathered over Europe in the mid-1930s, Rachmaninoff
brought his family back to the United States, making their new home in California. He continued composing, conducting, playing, and recording into the early 1940s, when advancing age finally took its toll. Rachmaninoff
retired following the 1942-43 season, his health declining rapidly, and in February of 1943 he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died on March 28 in his home in Beverly Hills. Rachmaninoff
was so successful as a performing artist that it interfered with his work as a composer. This may have deprived listeners of more compositions, but it also resulted in a high demand for his recordings, in turn, a huge number of recordings. He was an austere, almost gloomy presence at the keyboard, yet he possessed extraordinary dexterity and the instincts with which to use them to the utmost.
His relationship with RCA-Victor, beginning in 1919 and running through the early 1940's, was extremely lucrative and productive, with the result that we have recordings of Rachmaninoff
doing virtually all of his major works, including conducting his own Symphony No. 3 and Isle of the Dead (unfortunately in an edited form), as well as a small but select group of piano pieces by other composers. Many of these were unusually well recorded for their time, and they hold up extremely well to modern ears. The post-1925 recordings, done on electrical equipment, are all worthwhile, and even some of the acoustic recordings from 1919-24 sound surprisingly good.
The result, in selecting recordings of Rachmaninoff's
music, is that his own performances must always be considered seriously. There are superior performances of certain pieces, such as the Piano Concertos No. 3 and 4 (Martha Argerich
has done the definitive performance of the former, for Philips Records, while Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli has done the finest performance of the latter, on EMI; and Earl Wild's
recordings of any
of the piano pieces must be taken very seriously), but Rachmaninoff's
own have maintained their value. The only drawback to Rachmaninoff's
recording of the Piano Concerto No. 3 is that he recorded an edited version of the piece, evidently believing the complete version too massive and unwieldy to be absorbed by most listeners.
This problem aside, Rachmaninoff
was as charismatic on record as his presence on stage was austere. His technique allowed for extraordinary clarity in his playing, and his approach to his performances, always planned out with extraordinary care, have the intensity and calculation of a well-directed play, each complete with a carefully planned "culminating point." Those points were always perfectly chosen, and represent the music magnificently; those listeners, whether newly minted fans of the Third Piano Concerto from seeing the movie Shine
or veteran music fans who can't afford the RCA-BMG Complete Recordings, owe it to themselves to try the double-CD Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff, containing the four piano concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody. His concerto recordings benefit from surprisingly good engineering and extraordinary clarity in the orchestral accompaniment, especially in the pieces conducted by Leopold Stokowski
. Moreover, he also recorded numerous of his own works for solo piano, and sonatas for violin and piano by Beethoven
, and Grieg
with Fritz Kreisler
, the most celebrated violinist of the 20th century.
In addition to his actual recordings, Rachmaninoff
left behind a group of 34 music-roll recordings that capture his pianism in special detail. These perforated piano rolls, done on the Ampico system, capture all of the detail and virtually every nuance of his work at the keyboard -- the sense of rhythm, the soaring phrases, the delicacy of his touch, all are vividly displayed in works that include the Prelude in C-sharp minor, the Barcarolle in G minor, the Melodie in E minor, his transcription of Rimsky-Korsakov's
"Flight of the Bumble Bee," and his arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner." In 1978, Decca Records (aka London Records in the U.S.A.) recorded the playback of the best of these music rolls on an Estonia Grand Piano, thus imparting to Rachmaninoff's
playing the vibrancy of modern sound. Along with the ten CDs of Rachmaninoff
recordings released by RCA-BMG, these constitute some of the most important performances ever left behind by a composer.