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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