“Dear Mr. Steinway, I am very happy to have the opportunity of using your pianos for my concerts because I consider them to be perfect in every way.
One of the last great pianist–composers in a grand tradition stretching back to Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and Brahms, Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) pushed the values of the Romantic era deep into the 20th century. He earned most of his music a central place in the standard repertoire that has never wavered, thanks to his clear sense of instrumental drama and, in author Michael Kennedy’s words, “a gift for long and broad melodies imbued with a resigned melancholy that is never long absent.” The Russian, born in 1873, took up the piano at age 4 and graduated from Moscow Conservatory in 1892 (as part of a starry class that also included Josef Lhevinne and Alexander Scriabin). Rachmaninoff’s youthful collection of solo piano pieces titled Morceaux de fantaisie included the darkly dramatic Prelude in C-sharp minor that would become a worldwide hit, though its huge success was bittersweet for the composer; that prelude tended to overshadow much of his early music, and a lack of copyright agreements between Russia and the West meant that Rachmaninoff earned little from its ubiquity across Europe and the U.S. The disastrous 1897 premiere of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 helped lead to a three-year depression and writer’s block. The prize-winning reception, in 1901, for his melody-rich Piano Concerto No. 2 — which was dedicated to the hypnotherapist who helped him recover — paved the road to Rachmaninoff’s success, with the composer at the piano for its premiere. Rachmaninoff’s early body of work included a successful Symphony No. 2 and two piano trios, the beautiful Trios élégiaque, which deepened the post–Tchaikovsky tradition; he also composed deeply Russian choral works, many songs and three operas, as well as major sets of variations on themes by Chopin and Corelli for solo piano, plus two books of Etudes-Tableaux. Disturbed by political turmoil in Russia, Rachmaninoff began to work in the West in the early 1900s. He first toured America in 1909-10, performing his Third Piano Concerto in New York under Gustav Mahler. Rachmaninoff emigrated after the Russian Revolution of 1917, eventually settling in the U.S., where he was in demand as both a conductor and a pianist.
In his book The Great Pianists, critic Harold Schonberg depicted Rachmaninoff as one of the purest, most complete pianists who ever lived. He was a towering virtuoso — with vast hands and a near-photographic memory — who blended modernist rigor with Romantic poetry. “At any Rachmaninoff concert, one noted the sharp rhythmic thrusts, the virility and the sense of sonority the man had,” Schonberg wrote. “And, above all, a musical elegance in which phrases were shaped with exquisite finish. When he played a Liszt transcription of a Schubert song, one immediately realized how unimaginative and unmusical most singers were.” Rachmaninoff left many records of his playing — piano rolls, acoustic discs, electrical recordings. He recorded hit versions of his four piano concertos with the Philadelphia Orchestra (under Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy), along with conducting the orchestra himself in his Third Symphony, great tone poem Isle of the Dead and popular Vocalise. He also worked with violin star Fritz Kreisler, leaving discs of Beethoven, Schubert, Grieg. In addition to solo transcriptions of Bach and Handel, Rachmaninoff’s recorded legacy ranges from Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann to Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin. He also recorded much Chopin, including a famous version of the “Funeral March” Sonata. One critic, bowled over by Rachmaninoff’s way with that sonata, wrote in 1930: “The logic of the thing was impervious; the plan was invulnerable; the proclamation was imperial. There was nothing left for us but to thank our lucky stars that we had lived when Rachmaninoff did and heard him, out of the divine might of his genius, re-create a masterpiece.” Unfortunately, the composer only recorded a limited selection of his shorter solo piano works and never documented his way with his two piano sonatas and sets of variations. Yet on the concert stage, the pianist was a great exponent of his own works; in 1936, The New York Times hailed a performance of Rachmaninoff’s new Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini at Carnegie Hall with Stokowski and the Philly Orchestra: “To hear Mr. Rachmaninoff interpret the piano part is to listen to an amazing exhibition of imagination and commanding musicianship.” He built a new home in Switzerland in the early 1930s, but he returned to the U.S. permanently as war blighted Europe. Rachmaninoff’s final performance, a few weeks before his death in 1943, featured Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata. —Bradley Bambarger