RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor, Op. 44. Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 40. Vocalise, Op. 34/14 (orch. composer)
Philadelphia Orchestra; Sergei Rachmaninoff, pianist and conductor/Eugene Ormandy (in Concerto).
CLAREMONT G S E 78-5077 (F) (ADD) TT: 65:54

RACHMANINOFF: Symphony No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 13. The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29. St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Mariss Jansons, cond.
EMI 56754 (F) (DDD) TT: 66:22
Webmeister Benson has heard me complain a couple of times that composers of the Russian 19th and Soviet 20th centuries seem disproportionately represented on this website. Yet I find myself writing about two (more) Rachmaninoff CDs, the older of which is a treasure that all but beggars words.

Claremont GSE is a South African company whose cover art is off-putting (a poorish sketch of the composer/pianist/conductor by one René, in grey-tones, with yellow type on an overripe-peach background). This is doubly a shame because the disc contains superlative performances, superbly remastered, from 1939 (the Third Symphony), 1941 (the Fourth Concerto), and 1929 (the Vocalise where the sheer gorgeousness of string sound belies its vintage). The Philadelphia Orchestra in that period was equaled only by the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky, and reputedly was the composer's favorite.
Claremont is upfront with a "Warning: This recording has been made from 78 rpm shellac discs originating over 50 years ago. Some surface noise can be heard." But not obtrusively, and besides, a whole lot more music has been preserved in amazing transfers by Donald Graham (right up there with Ward Marston and Mark Obert-Thorn). "Amazing" is not a word I bandy about. But as a teenage owner of these performances on 78-rpm discs, I had no idea back then how opulently RCA was recording mono sound in Philadelphia's tricky Academy of Music.

To the orchestra's combination of high-gloss and depth of tone, and the music's sheer sturdiness, add Rachmaninoff's mahogany tone and weighted touch without sounding heavy-handed or portentous. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's EMI recording of the neglected Fourth Concerto has been called a paragon for almost 40 years (the coupled Ravel in G, however, really is a classic of musical phonography). But this astonishing transfer not only reminds one how Rachmaninoff played, how he sounded in person, but reconfirms ownership of his own music.

The Fourth hasn't the tunes of Nos. 2 and 3, and was extensively edited years after the original proved a failure in 1926 (dumb notes by Thomas Rajna say Rachmaninoff "may have made many cuts in his original sketches," but nothing about his downsizing of a much longer work—the original exists—to 25 minutes). Ormandy accompanied the composer as faithfully as Stokowski had, before his replacement in 1938 as music director; some may say even more so.

While the Third Symphony makes certain structural detours, it is a major work by a mature composer, though he "hated" writing symphonies. Many conductors have performed it, but hearing Rachmaninoff himself, again, after decades of disassociation, confirms his international reputation on the podium (Boston importuned him, after all, but he said no, in order to concentrate on the piano).

On EMI's 1998 recording of the composer's ill-fated First Symphony and The Isle of the Dead, composed a dozen years later (the annotator counts 14 between 1887 and 1909), Mariss Jansons has reverted to being quixotic. His Winter-Capital coupling of Symphony No. 3 and Symphonic Dances is the best modern version of both works as I listen. But Symphony No. 2 sounded cumbersome, almost clay-footed, with no "lift" melodically and too little tonal sheen. Now we have a First full of expressive longuers and hardly any rhythmic thrust, except in the second movement Scherzo, which pares a minute off Ormandy's 1966 tempo, in a Sony reissue of the symphonies that moves briskly—at times matter-of-factly. What worked outstandingly for Jansons and the St. Petersburghers in Shostakovich's 15th Symphony is misapplied in Rachmaninoff's precocious First. (It was premiered by Glazunov , who was drunk and destructive, for which the Winter-Capital critics blamed the 24-year old composer, after all an upstart from the Moscow Conservatory, which sent him into a three-year alcoholic funk.)

But the lead balloon on this disc is an Isle as dead as the corpse in the skiff in Arnold Böcklin's painting, which attracted Rachmaninoff's attention in a Dresden museum. (Actually it was one of four paintings by the artist on the same subject.) Not even its 5/4 rhythm catches the ear. Laid-back? Try embalmed, and seek elsewhere: the composer himself on an RCA/ BMG remastering of his definitive 1929 Philadelphia recording; Koussevitzky's, which replaced it in 1945; Reiner's from Chicago that replaced Boston in 1957, and lots more. But no one should overlook a white-hot performance by Dimitri Mitropoulos from his Minneapolis years, reissued by Sony on a Columbia Masterworks Heritage CD with Mahler's Symphony No. 1.

R.D. (Oct. 2000)