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Celebrate Sergei Rachmaninoff's 150th birthday with the composer at the keyboard

Sergei Rachmaninoff at the piano with a birthday hat and bunting added to the historic photo
Colleen Phelps
Celebrating the 150th birthday of Sergei Rachmaninoff

Today is the 150th birthday of composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. There is much to reflect upon within his long-standing musical legacy. Lush scores and virtuosic lines are the intensely romantic cultural touchstones that he left behind. And while his work is continually performed by pianists, choirs, and orchestras all over the world, we can also hear Rachmaninoff himself perform because he was among the first to make use of the technology of recording.

This sets Rachmaninoff apart from his contemporaries. Before the 1910s the recording process was not even electronic, and wax cylinders were difficult to use and preserve. Performers were able to produce piano rolls, which sort of created a reproduction of their playing rather than an actual recording. The idea of proper acoustic treatment and microphone placement was still quite experimental. But as the phonograph came into wider use in the 1920s, there was an audience for recordings.

The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy was the first full orchestral work to be released, but Tchaikovsky himself was long gone by the time Columbia Records was putting even snippets of large works on shellac discs. But in the 1920s Rachmaninoff recorded his second concerto with the Philadelphia orchestra - not once, but twice.

The concerto itself has a remarkable genesis. The work that preceded it was his first symphony, the premiere of which had not gone well. While that symphony is now a beloved mainstay of the classical concert repertoire, its debut was conducted by a likely intoxicated and definitely subpar orchestral leader Alexander Glazunov.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, the year of the premiere of his Symphony No. 1
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Sergei Rachmaninoff, the year of the premiere of his Symphony No. 1

Glazunov made changes to the score without Rachmaninoff’s permission, and did not adequately rehearse. Rachmaninoff left the premiere before it ended, and his friend and mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov described the work as “not at all agreeable.” Other Russian composers closed ranks with harsh criticism. Rachmaninoff even met with the author Leo Tolstoy in the hope of finding encouragement and inspiration, but instead Tolstoy asked him “is such music even necessary?”

Rachmaninoff suffered what is described as a three-year psychological collapse.

In 2023's hindsight, it is a striking coincidence that Rachmaninoff’s artistic block was that precise length. The world of music took its longest and most thorough pause ever in March of 2020 - one that for many lasted a similar duration. While Rachmaninoff did not face a pandemic in the same way (though his family did contract the flu in 1918), one could imagine the composer would empathize with such an unprecedented existential crisis.

Rachmaninoff’s recovery only came once he sought help from a hypnotherapist. And then he orchestrated the greatest comeback of 20th century music: his second piano concerto.

Whether you know the piece from its many recordings, or even from the movieCenter Stage, its emotional impact is undeniable.

The second concerto was, to put it simply, a hit. When the composer arrived in the United States in 1909, he had his third concerto in hand. But it was the second concerto that he performed with the Boston Symphony no less than 10 times. When he returned to the US as a refugee nine years later, it was with the promise of a performing career, and the second concerto was a backbone of his bookings. After making several recordings of his solo piano playing, in 1924 he and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski made their first attempt to record the second concerto.

For a composer who was often criticized in his lifetime as being too old-fashioned, stepping into the recording studio in the 1920s was remarkably forward thinking - especially as a classical artist. It was actually the first time the record label, Victor, had attempted to record an orchestra with a soloist. Most orchestral recordings up to this point were just excerpts of full length pieces, so the concerto was a massive undertaking.

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Trinity Baptist Church Camden, NJ, where Victor recorded orchestras

At Trinity Baptist Church in Camden, New Jersey, over the course of several spread out sessions, they did in the end successfully complete the task…somewhat. Only the second and third movements were approved for release. The quality of the recording leaves it difficult to hear the piano over the orchestra, despite the fact that the recording horn was placed directly in front of the Steinway B Rachmaninoff played. You can see in the image that the stage must have been quite crowded with the full complement of performers required for the piece’s lush orchestration.

A few years later, in 1929, they returned to the concerto at the Academy of Music over one long session with more space and another particularly important change - this time there was a microphone.

The good news is that these recordings give us a living document of what the composer wanted. Interpretation questions are answered. Tempo and rubato are all effectively modeled by the composer himself. Unlike the memory of a live performance there is no chance of disagreement - we can simply slide to rewind.

The bad news is that these recordings give us a living document of what the composer wanted. The act of looking at the music and discovering or guessing for ourselves is subordinate to what is on the albums. After all, how could one presume to know better than Rachmaninoff himself? However, this hasn’t slowed down any artists from putting out their own version of the work. A quick search brings hundreds recordings available, with many soloists, like Rachmaninoff, taking more than one swing at the piece.

Performers’ fresh takes on the work are enjoyable, and surely more clear of hiss and static. Some are even full departures from Rachmaninoff’s interpretation. But it’s still extraordinary and special to have the composer’s historic recordings. With his undeniable virtuosity and his massive reach at the instrument, even as it grows to be nearly a century old, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s playing remains worth a spin - and at the very least a worthy way to celebrate a milestone of a birthday.

Colleen is the Music Director and host for LPM Classical. Email Colleen at colleen@lpm.org.

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