While one of my piano teachers first attracted me to the shorter compositions of Alexander Scriabin, it was through the pianist Michael Ponti that I developed an appreciation of the breadth of that composer’s repertoire. As a result, when it came to replacing my vinyls with CDs, I was delighted that Vox had accounted for Ponti’s recordings of both the sonatas and all of the other piano works. Recently, I discovered that Ponti’s recordings on Vox of the complete piano music of Sergei Rachmaninoff (including the four-hand, six-hand, and two-piano compositions) had been reissued by Musical Concepts.
Earlier this week I used my Rehearsal Studio blog to write about the close relationship between Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. Scriabin was born a little more than a year before Rachmaninoff, and the two were fellow students at the Moscow Conservatory. They were very good friends; and, when Scriabin died in 1915, Rachmaninoff marked the occasion with an all-Scriabin recital.
Nevertheless, Rachmaninoff was never as adventurous as Scriabin. There are a few signs of influence, the most evident being in the Opus 39 set of Études-Tableaux. However, it is clear that Rachmaninoff was never comfortable with the ambiguities in Scriabin’s use of chromaticism in his harmonic progressions.
Thus, there is not much of a journey to the full canon of Rachmaninoff’s piano music. Indeed, the solo composition for which he is best known, the C-sharp minor prelude, is the second of his five “fantasy pieces” published as his Opus 3. This was composed in 1892 and was first performed at Rachmaninoff’s debut recital on September 20 of that year. While the Ponti collection runs to six CDs (and does not include the piano-and-orchestra compositions), that prelude remains a paragon of saying much in a short duration (62 measures to be exact).
One might say that, while Scriabin was a searcher as a composer, Rachmaninoff composed for the sake of advancing his career as a pianist. The C-sharp minor prelude would always serve him (not to mention any number of other pianists) as an encore piece; but he assumed (reasonably so) that audiences would expect him to come up with new pieces for his recitals. As one listens to the Ponti collection, one appreciates that Rachmaninoff obliged his audiences very well; but he assumed that they wanted him to stick with what he did best.
What this means is that the best way to appreciate Rachmaninoff through Ponti’s recordings is in small doses. Listening to one CD at as time will probably suffice, even in the case of the final CD, all of whose works require more than one pianist. In that setting one can appreciate the diversity Rachmaninoff brings to works that were probably intended to showcase his own virtuosity. Such appreciation will then lead one to understand better that logic that Rachmaninoff tried to bring to his orchestral writing and, through that understanding, a recognition of when that logic served him well and when it did not.