Monday, September 13, 2010

RACHMANINOFF PLAYS RACHMANINOFF - Prelude in C Sharp Minor, op. 3 no. 2

This EXCELLENT video by record collector and music historian Carsten Fischer is worth watching.

In it he plays all three phonograph recordings by Sergei Rachmaninoff of his famous Prelude in C Sharp Minor. - the PHONOGRAPH RECORDINGS as opposed to the more frequently-heard recordings of the Ampico player-piano roll.  Certain subtleties in his style are lost in the translation with the piano-roll process, and those who can hear through the surface noise will discover this as well.

Not only that, he discusses the differences and provides links to related videos and topics about Rachmaninoff's playing.

Pictured is my copy of the first recording (1919) of the piece by the composer.  It was predated by Wilhelm Backhaus, who recorded this perennial old favorite around 1909 for the Gramophone Company, released in the US by Victor (believed to be the first recording of it) and Josef Hofmann for Columbia in 1912, as well as Julius P. Schendel for Victor around 1918.

The 1923 Victor better shows the way he voiced the opening chords. 

And I should add that these three recordings, and the Ampico piano roll, lay to rest the HORRENDOUS misprint that exists in many editions, perpetrated (I believe) by the old Oesterle/Schirmer edition.  A copy of an old Russian edition of ths prelude may be found here.  In Measure 5 (not counting the pickup), the chord in the left hand on beat 2 has a D SHARP.  Someone along the way edited this to D natural, here, and at the repeat at the climax.  Many renowned pianists, including one who studied with Rachmaninoff, play this misprint.  I plan to do an article on the origin (and evolution) of this egregious mistake later.

I have nothing else to add to the discussion on these three recordings, as I feel that Carsten does an excellent job of compare-and-contrast. 

UPDATE - December 2010:  I have included Carsten's video descriptions and links below.  In the first incarnation of this article, the video was not imbedded, and the reader would have seen those links there.

All three recordings of Rachmaninoff playing the C# Minor Prelude, from his first 1919 Edison record, the 1923 acoustic, and the 1928 Victor electric remake.

Recorded on the HMV 31b Orthophonic Gramophone.
I have equalized the sound recordings (with a RIAA curve) to help with bass response. Otherwise the recordings are not manipulated. The few distortions are digital artifacts due to the recording level.

The identical movie below is a straight recording from the Gramophone without equalization added.

The Prelude in C Sharp Minor, The Bells of Moscow, is arguably Rachmaninoffs most (in)famous work. It had been recorded as early as 1917 by Mark Hambourg and Josef Hofmann.

When Rachmaninoff arrived in New York shortly after armistice in 1918, he had a difficult start like many Russian émigrés. To make his first recordings, he signed up with the Edison company, who claimed for themselves to have a superior recording process.
Rachmaninoff nervous and insecure with the unknown recording experience recorded a few pieces in many takes in April 1919 at the Edison New York studio.

Unfortunately, the Edison company had no track record dealing with celebrity pianists: Rachmaninoff was forced to play on an upright piano, and despite his wishes to publish only certain good takes, the Edison company also published takes containing slips or embarrassing mistakes. Thomas A. Edison himself very hard of hearing called Rachmaninoff dismissively just a pounder. Matters were not helped by the fact that Edison records of 1920 had many defects, and the high noise level drowned out much musical subtlety.

Disappointed with this first experience, Rachmaninoff signed on with Victor on April 21, 1920. After a period of rather undistinguished recording quality, Victor had improved their acoustic recording process substantially in the 1920s. Victor was happy to grant Rachmaninoff artistic control over record releases, and offered him a substantial contract.
In the beginning, Victor avoided duplicating the Edison recordings, and it was not until 1923 that the C# Minor prelude was recorded again. In 1925, the famous Wester Electric system of electric recording was introduced, and Rachmaninoff was one of the first artists to make electric piano records. Again, the Prelude was low priority, and an electric re-take was not made until 1928.

The three recordings, despite some technical shortcomings, are a fascinating document of technology and artistic interpretation: Rachmaninoff makes each recording unique with subtle changes in accents, tempo and rubato. Also, with the electric recording, he is free to employ a much greater dynamic range.
One interesting point of speculation is how the recording technology affected the sound and perhaps interpretation of the pieces.

While both acoustic recordings have somewhat wooden bass notes, they very nicely accentuate the treble lines. The electric recording, while full and dramatic, seems to be somewhat less focused, perhaps even plodding, compared to the acoustic Victor. In my mind, the acoustic Victor is the best recording, as a focused interpretation, and an even tonal range.
The Edison recording, even when ignoring the technical defects, does not seem to be quite as balanced, the treble is not quite as integrated, and there seems to be a curious tonal dip in the upper midrange. A curious fact is that much of the treble line disappears on the electric.

Lets check the bell effects in the treble line:

On the Edison, the treble line at 2:32 and 2:55 is nice and clear, but seems to be somewhat too sharp, and not integrated with the midrange.
On the Victor acoustic, at 5:55 6:06 6:25, the sparkling treble line is perfectly blended and gives the great bell sound.
On the electric at 9:34 and 9:46, the treble line all but disappears, and the bell sound is mostly lost.

Please read my notes on the other video for more information on the physical records and the gramophone used.

Some links:

a really clean transfer of the Edison -
RACHMANINOFF plays Prelude in C# Minor: 1919 Edison,

The 1928 Victor (somewhat overfiltered)

A 1942 documentary about how they made Victor records:

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