After hearing this week from two great French composers linked to the Impressionist movement–Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel–we continue our series of classic piano-roll recordings with a trio of performances by the last of the great Russian Romantic composers: Sergei Rachmaninoff.
When the Bolsheviks seized the aristocratic Rachmaninoff’s estate shortly after the October Revolution of 1917, he and his family fled to Scandinavia and then to America, where they arrived in November of 1918. To make money, the cash-strapped émigré put aside composing and embarked on a grueling performance schedule, and in March of 1919 agreed to make a series of piano-roll recordings for the American Piano Company, or “Ampico.”
It was a time of transition for musical entertainment. Most families who were not poor owned a piano, in keeping with the tradition that home entertainment was a do-it-yourself affair. But as technology advanced, people became more accustomed to the idea of hearing the music of a world-famous virtuoso in their own living room. Player pianos, or pianolas, sounded better than early phonographs and could still serve the function of a regular piano, so for awhile there was a booming business in the perforated paper rolls that kept them playing.
Rachmaninoff was interested in tapping into the piano roll market, but was skeptical at first about the quality of the recordings. When he made his first recording at the Ampico studio in New York, he was pleasantly surprised when he heard the playback. “Gentlemen,” he reportedly said, “I, Sergei Rachmaninoff, have just heard myself play.” He would eventually record 35 pieces for Ampico between 1919 and 1929, twelve of which were his own compositions. In the video above, we hear three of his best-known piano-roll recordings:
- Rachmaninoff plays his famous Prelude in C Sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2 , from the 1892 suite, Morceaux de fantaisie (“Fantasy Pieces”), recorded on March 17, 1919.
- Rachmaninoff plays his own piano transcription of his popular 1902 song “Lilacs,” from 12 Romances (also known as 12 Songs), Op. 21, recorded on April 6, 1922.
- Rachmaninoff plays a famous short piece written by another Russian composer: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1903 “Flight of the Bumblebee,” recorded on February 1, 1929.