Obscure Treasures From the King of Dark, Wrenching, High Romantic Angst
In these perilous times, who better to spend an hour or so with than the king of High Romantic angst, Sergei Rachmaninoff? The repertoire is vast. There are so many obvious choices: one far less obvious collection is The Complete Rachmaninoff Works and Transcriptions for Piano and Violin, played with dynamic intensity by violinist Annelle Gregory and pianist Alexander Sinchuk and streaming at Spotify. Bridge Records put this out in 2017.
Although the iconic Russian composer only wrote three pieces (that we know of) for violin and piano, there are a grand total of seventeen other transcriptions of some of his most famous and haunting themes included here as well. The duo kick off the record with the first of his original three, the Romance in A minor. This waltz may be a student work, but it’s achingly gorgeous, laced with Asian tinges and occasional slashing chromatics.
His other two original arrangements, grouped together as Deux Morceaux de Salon, Op. 6, are an even more brooding Romance, with some of Gregory’s most richly resonant midrange playing, and a lickety-split Hungarian Dance with strangely bell-like piano.
Most of the other arrangements are either by the composer’s old violinist pal and occasional bandmate Fritz Kreisler, or by another violinist, Jascha Heifetz, a brilliant Rachmaninoff interpreter. Kreisler’s first is a stripped-down version of the famous, searching theme from the second movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 (the godfather of all angst-ridden piano pieces). It seems a little fast.
The most irresistibly outside-the-box of the Heifetz versions is the reinvention of the immortal (and crushingly venomous) G Minor Prelude Op. 23, No. 5 with a subdued drive that could almost be cumbia, The Prelude, Op. 23, No. 9 is furtive and insectilishly creepy – this is the one for your Halloween mixtape.
Heifetz’ reinventions continue with the Romance, Op. 21, No. 7 “It’s Peaceful Here,” a fond miniature, then the Romance, Op. 21, No. 9 “Melody” with some arrestingly fluttery doublestops from Gregory. Sinchuk’s belltone phrasing in the Etude-Tableau, Op. 33, No. 2 is sublime, while Gregory has a jaunty good time with the lilting Etude-Tableau, Op. 33, No. 7. And a final morsel, Oriental Sketch, flits by with only hints of the pentatonic scale.
Kreisler’s version of the Italian Polka, a rarity, has unexpected klezmerish flair; the Romance, Op. 38, No. 3 “Daisies” has more than a hint of a Mediterranean pastorale. And the iconic romantic theme, the 18th Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini comes into clearer focus in this stripped-down treatment.
Another Romance, Rachmaninoff’s song It Was in April – reinvented as an instrumental by Konstantin Mostras – is an attractively Spanish-tinged miniature. The duo give a practically Satie-esque plaintiveness but also quasi-operatic drama to the Mikhail Press arrangement of the Morceaux de Fantaisie, Op. 3, No. 5 “Serenade.” Press – a violinist and Rachmaninoff contemporary – also recasts the iconic Vocalise with as much cantabile quality as a voice could conjure.
The two give a nocturnal restraint to Mikhail Erdenko’s chart for the Prelude, Op. 23, No. 4. Nobody seems to know who came up with the one for the version of the “Oriental Romance” Op. 4, No. 4 but it’s one of the most anthemic and vividly imploring songs here (the title is misleading – there’s no discernible Asian reference).