Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff: Three Famous Pieces, 1919–1929

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Rav­el Plays Rav­el: The Haunt­ing, Melan­choly ‘Oiseaux Tristes,’ 1922

Debussy Plays Debussy: The Great Com­poser’s Play­ing Returns to Life

Watch the Great Russ­ian Com­pos­er Sergei Rach­mani­noff in Home Movies

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Comments (12)
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  • The Rach­mani­noff piano selec­tions are superb.

  • Robert Bressler says:

    Bra­vo Rach­mani­noff.

  • Sally-Elizabeth Darley says:

    Won­der­ful. Just what I want now.

  • Paul Laubhan says:

    In my youth and thanks to Pro­fes­sor Harold Reev­er, I was able to hear Rach­mani­noff play the Pre­lude in G minor on an orig­i­nal record­ing and on a record­ing stu­dio sys­tem. It was the major inspi­ra­tion for my piano work for the rest of my life. There was so much pow­er in his play­ing, and I was awe inspired. Of course, one los­es the dynam­ics of the artist, as the roll sys­tem is not capa­ble of repro­duc­ing them. But still, it is Rach­mani­noff play­ing. I’m 60 years old now, but I feel more pow­er in play­ing a good Stein­way in a nice hall than I do play­ing one of my elec­tric gui­tars through a 100 watt Mar­shall. Hon­est­ly. Great stuff. And it takes me back to my youth and those record­ings when I was 7 years old that inspired me into a life just full of music. I thank you for putting these record­ings out here, where once again I can hear the man play­ing his own music, which was, and remains, such an inspi­ra­tion to me.

  • Beth says:

    Thanks for shar­ing this today. My moth­er, who would have been 80 and week old today had learned Pre­lude in C Sharp — in her youth, but had nev­er learned to read the music. She would make her way through it, frus­trat­ed when she’d for­got­ten a part .… but to me it was a delight and inspired me to take piano lessons and become a life­long Rach­mani­noff admir­er. Such fun to the hear the mas­ter him­self play­ing these pieces!

  • Robert Gift says:

    So nice hear­ing Sergei in excel­lent record­ing sound qual­i­ty and on a piano in per­fec­tune.

  • Richard Bradley says:

    This man was a giant among giants I have this cd and nev­er tire of play­ing it.

  • Paul Laubhan says:

    To Beth,

    I think it is just mar­velous that your moth­er taught her­self the C# Minor Pre­lude by ear. I think it even more mar­velous that she inspired you with a love of the man’s music that would last a life­time. I believe we are kin­dred souls.

  • Robert Gift says:

    Just noticed the nice pho­tos. Thank you.
    I must speed up my play­ing of the Rim­sky-Kor­sakov piece. I have been play­ing Flight of the Bum­bling Bee.

  • i col­lect rach­mani­noff- any one w first edi­tions let me know- mozela9@comcast.net plan­ning to go to ivanov­ka in 2014- any one w infor­ma­tion let me know-after bach, it is rach­mani­noff that rules

  • Priscilla Gutierrez says:

    My boyfriend has Rach­mani­noff orig­i­nals. Feel free to call they are AMPICO Reord­ings for the playre pianos.

  • david eberhardt says:

    thanx but i’m look­ing for scores- best to u

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