Thursday, January 1, 2015

CD Recommendation-Pletnev and Rachmaninov (and Chopin).

I recently wrote about Sergei Rachmaninov's numerous concert performances in Kansas City back in the 1920 and 30's. (I had not been aware that he had ever been in my hometown). I love his music and I discovered a CD in my collection called Homage a Rachmaninov performed by the Russian pianist, Mikhail Pletnev. This became my favorite CD of 2014. It was recorded in 1998 at Rachmaninov's summer home known as Villa Senar on the banks of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. Rachmaninov loved Steinway pianos, and he had his own special Steinway delivered to Villa Senar where it still remains in his study. (This is the piano he used to compose his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini). Pletnev recorded this album on Rachmaninov's piano.
The first thing I noticed was how GREAT this recording sounded. I don't know how to mic a piano etc....but the tone and presence of this recording is warm and alive.You feel like you are in the room at Villa Senar listening to Rachmaninov himself playing.
The first piece on the CD are his Variations on a Theme of Corelli, which Rachmaninov himself performed frequently while on tour. The liner notes are full of stories and anecdotes about Rachmaninov, one of which describes how when playing the Corelli, he "regularly omitted individual sections whenever it became clear that the audience was not concentrating or when they began to cough unduly".
The CD also features Pletnev playing Beethoven's Sonata no. 26, Mendelssohn's Andante cantabile e Presto agitato and Rondo capriccioso op.14, Chopin's Grand Polonaise op. 22, and Rachmaninov's 4 Etudes-Tableaux. All of these are terrific, but the Chopin jumped out as my favorite.
My first memories of Chopin go back to the 1970's when my sister was a ballet dancer with the Austin Civic Ballet.  At that time, the music for dance class was provided by a pianist, and Chopin's music was a staple of this repertoire. Her dance classes and my violin lessons were frequently on the same evening, and I remember my lesson being over first, so I had to wait at the dance studio for her class to finish which assured that I would get a healthy does of Chopin each week. Ballades, Polonaises, Mazurkas, name it....they were all there. Fast forward several years to high school. My first real girlfriend...and a good friend to this day...was a pianist. She turned me on to Chopin's Preludes. This changed my musical life, much the same way as hearing the Mahler 5th or the Beatles for the first time. I defy anyone to listen to Pletnev's recording of the Grand Polonaise and not feel lifted off your chair. It soars.
And back to my blog entry about Rachmaninov touring so extensively. The author of the liner notes for this CD, Jurgen Otten, describes how the Wall Street collapse of 1929 affected  Rachmaninov's financial security, forcing him to tour constantly throughout the 1930's. "Often enough, Rachmaninov would travel across half a continent, only to find himself performing in half-empty, badly heated halls". I hope his performances in Lawrence, Rolla, Hutchinson, St. Joseph, Columbia, Topeka and KC were well heated.
Here is a clip of a documentary showing Pletnev playing some of the Corelli, filmed at Villa Senar. It's in Russian, but it is fascinating.

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