Here is the most complete collection of Rachmaninoff 's output ever assembled on disc: from the piano concertos and preludes of worldwide affection and esteem to his many songs and three operas, which are far less known but reveal the heart and soul of their creator, as a Russian first and foremost, whose attachment to his mother country never diminished in decades of homesick exile.
The performers on this set are drawn from both sides of that divide: Earl Wild plays the piano concertos, while the equally maverick conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky masterminds the symphonies. The Borodin Trio plays the two impassioned piano trios, while another American virtuoso, Garrick Ohlsson, tackles the many transcriptions that the composer made of Chopin, Bach and others, with the major piano works (the sonatas, preludes and Études-tableaux) played by Santiago Rodriguez and Nikolai Lugansky. There are also new recordings of early piano pieces made especially for this set and not previously released. The set is completed by an extended introduction to the composer and his work by the Rachmaninoff authority Julian Haylock on a bonus CD-ROM.
Reviews of some of the original recordings that make up this set:
Two caveats for prospective customers: One is that Earl Wild makes the once-standard "traditional" cuts in the finale of the Third Concerto; second is that these classic 1965 performances also are available on the Chesky label in less brilliant but more naturally equalized transfers, albeit spread across three full-priced discs. Chandos, however, offers the better bargain. More importantly, Wild is in dazzling form throughout. You'll rarely hear the First and Fourth Concertos sparkle with equal panache and rhythmic acuity, while the pianist's fusion of poetry and flair add up to a Paganini Rhapsody that leaves just about all stereo versions behind. Jascha Horenstein's incisive, colorful support is a major asset, and the Royal Philharmonic plays beautifully for him. If you don't mind the Third Concerto cuts (or already have Martha Argerich's landmark third), these classic performances only get better with age, and the sonics are still terrific. Go for it, piano fans!
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com
Symphonic Dances, The Bells
"Polyansky's Symphonic Dances is relaxed and lush, with fine solos and generally excellent orchestral playing. In keeping with the overall mood, climaxes are not as highly charged as in several other recordings, but the more exciting ones often turn blatantly brassy (e.g., Järvi), which this performance avoids. Add in Chandos's usual big, solid recorded sound in the spacious but not too reverberant acoustic of the Grand Auditorium of the Moscow Conservatory, and we have an enjoyable rendering. If there is little Russian character in evidence here, we must remember that the work was composed by a US resident for Ormandy and his Philadelphia Orchestra. Their superb 1960 Columbia recording is unmatched, but the slightly tubby sound of Sony's CD transfer may take it out of the running.
The Bells, on the other hand, displays plenty of Russian character, despite its origin as an Edgar Allan Poe poem and having been written in Rome in 1913. Russian voices singing their own language supply both plusses and minuses: Olga Lutsiv-Ternovskaya has a lovely soprano and pours out creamy tone; Leonid Bomstein has that strange Russian-tenor sound, light and dry yet effective."
-- James H. North, Fanfare
The Miserly Knight
"How many operas and other musical works have been inspired by the writings of Alexander Pushkin? The number must be vast and here is another - one of Rachmaninov’s three early stage works. With minor parings and adjustments Rachmaninov used the whole of Pushkin's drama. The scenes of the Miserly Knight flow as a whole. There is little feeling of set-piece arias linked by hum-drum. The sense of narrative is strong as perhaps was to be expected from the composer’s director role at the Bolshoi.
The plot. The Baron is a miser and Albert, his son, lives in shame of his father's tight-fisted reputation. There has been a jousting competition and the Count has had his helmet damaged. In scene 2 the Baron visits the crypt of the castle to add to his treasury of gold: power is wealth no matter what grief it may have cost. The damask musical drapes of this part of the score conjure the subterranean gloom in tones familiar from the first movement of the Second Symphony. The Baron then contemplates his mortality and fears his thriftless son will exhaust his treasure when he is in the grave. Albert asks the Duke to reason with his father so that he will change his ways. Things come to a head when Albert overhears the Baron suspecting Albert of being out to murder him. Albert challenges his father to a duel. The Duke, horrified at this conflict between son and father, banishes Albert. The Baron is at last mortified by his absorption in worldly goods. Burning with shame, he falls dead.
Neeme Järvi reigns in isolated supremacy when it comes to complete cycles of Rachmaninov's three early operas: we leave out of the reckoning the shards and shreds of Mona Vanna recorded on another Chandos CD. I am guessing that the present disc is not a one-off event and that Polyansky will also record the other two: Aleko and Francesca da Rimini. If so he will be doughty competition for Järvi’s set.
This Chandos disc is a fine entry into the lists. Polyansky, at one time given to a rather torpid approach in his Chandos cycle of Glazunov symphonies, here strikes a better balance. The Prelude broods and yet there is a vibrancy in the subservient instrumental lines. His vocal team, all men (there are no female roles in this opera) are uniformly robust. Grivnov is cast from strength and has one of those lean, resinous and rock-steady Atlantov-style heroic Russian voices. Molchanov's more nasal and wheedling style suits the caricature Moneylender role.
The writing recalls Rachmaninov's Second Symphony pretty frequently and there is also a confidently strong, occasionally hysterical, Tchaikovskian presence. The wild-eyed tension rattles along in terms familiar from the finale of Tchaikovsky 4. The grim ending of the opera is typical of the tormented Tchaikovsky."
-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International
Rachmaninov worked on Monna Vanna—the last of his operatic ventures—between 1906 and 1907, during the burst of creativity that generated the Second Symphony, the First Sonata, and Isle of the Dead. He completed a piano score of the first act and started sketches of the second; but when Maeterlinck refused him rights to the play, he abandoned the score, which remained all but forgotten. In the 1970s, however, Rachmaninov's sister-in-law asked Igor Buketoff to orchestrate the finished act; it was premiered, in English, at Saratoga during the summer of 1984, and it here receives its first recording, also in English, with the same conductor and the same baritone in the central role of Guido.
Rachmaninov and Maeterlinck might seem an odd combination—but Monna Vanna is not as vaporous as Pelléas or Ariane et Barbe-Blue. Indeed, the libretto has a bit in common with the Magda Liven-Orlova text used by Prokofiev a few years later in his unfinished opera, Maddalena (see 13:5). Set in a similarly half-imaginary Renaissance Italy (a convenient generic mise-en-scène for authors who want to bring thematics of erotic cruelty to the surface), if offers a similarly poisonous union of sex, betrayal, psychological torture, and violence, as well as male protagonists who are similarly bound together through the exchange of a woman. True, Monna Vanna has a touch of the enigmatic quality that operagoers in particular are apt to associate with Maeterlinck— capsulized when Marco notes, “How often do we live with those whom we love dearly, when there is much . . . that should be said, that never is revealed.“ But for the most part, the psychological anguish is less obliquely set out than in Pelléas, and the text responds well to Rachmaninov's dark and often broodingly thick colors.
Despite the potentials of the text, though, I'm not convinced Rachmaninov chose to set it in a way that plays to his strengths. It's fundamentally a declamatory opera, in the tradition of Dargomyzhsky, with flat vocal lines and the orchestra largely limited to providing commentary, either through coloristic highlighting or through brief, fairly undeveloped dramatic gestures. Furthermore, what little melody does manage to break through is, curiously, associated with hypocrisy rather than authentic expression. Thus, to the extent that the lyrical is allowed to flower in Guido's apostrophe to Vanna, it represents the husband's calculated attempt to manipulate his wife rhetorically, not some spontaneous expression of his inner feelings; the melodic line is thus self-conscious and carefully controlled. In the end, then, there's little opportunity for Rachmaninov to develop the longer spans that, especially at that point in his career, best exemplified his genius. To reduce the opera's effectiveness further, of course, we've only got the first act—an act that sets up but one side of the complex triangle that fuels the play's dramatic action. The result is a Casablanca without Victor Laszlo.
Still, this is Rachmaninov at his prime, and there are superlative touches: the luminous orchestral halo as Marco describes his rediscovery of a lost boyhood friend; the strikingly impressionistic dream-like choral introduction to the third scene; the tormented rapture to which that scene builds; the luscious orchestral close. The orchestration is idiomatic, too, and the performance is more committed than one excepts in such arcane material. Milnes sings Guido with exceptional authority, and just the right half-comprehending cruelty as he conflates his wife's honor with his own unquestioned possession of her; and his enunciation is so clear that you hardly need to look at the libretto. McCoy catches the curious combination of resigned wisdom and aesthetic softness that marks Guido's father Marco; and in her brief lines, Walker balances Vanna's self-assertion with purity and innocence. The chorus and orchestra seem on top of the music.
-- Peter J. Rabinowitz, Fanfare
Rachmaninov's songs have attracted many singers over the years, from Lily Pons to Martti Talvela, plus many Russians; few, however, went beyond the half-dozen perennial favorites. Jennie Tourel and Nicolai Gedda gave us substantial selections on records, and Elisabeth Söderström recorded eighty-six songs with Vladimir Ashkenazy; their five LPs have been reissued on three CDs in England. The widest selection on compact disc on these shores has been by Ana Pusar (Fanfare 18:1); baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and mezzo Zara Dolukhanova have also been heard from.
As in his recent Mussorgsky song recital, Sergei Leiferkus's dark voice and dramatic vocalism are reminiscent of Boris Christoff; there is no higher praise from this corner. This time Leiferkus is aided by a superior pianist; like Ashkenazy, Howard Shelley is one of the leading exponents of Raehmaninov's piano music, and he contributes much sensitive playing. Recognizing the dual accomplishment, Chandos allows the piano to be heard even at the singer's most impassioned climaxes. Although Leiferkus is unparalleled in the dramatic songs, there are others in which a woman's voice and softer approach are more appropriate. Söderström is a skilled, imaginative artist, and Tourel's haunting voice comes through a half-century-old recording which deserves reissue; Pusar sings in a stentorian manner closer to Leiferkus than to the other ladies.
These thirty-two songs include some from each of Rachmaninov's six published sets, plus seven others published posthumously. The booklet includes reasonable notes and four-language song texts. This is the first disc of a projected complete cycle of Rachmaninov songs which should make a worthy companion to Söderström's set.
-- James H. North, FANFARE [1/1996]