Virtuoso

Review of Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda, Sergei Rachmaninoff (London: Allen and Unwin, 1965)

From the Rosalyn Tureck Collection,
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University

Rachmaninoff represented the great romantic-virtuoso tradition of the Russian pianist-composers. Pianists have found his works particularly appealing, for he composed with a perceptive and realistic awareness of the piano's virtuoso possibilities. His piano works, notably the concertos and the preludes, succeeded in performance with brilliant effectiveness, and his lush romantic Russian idiom brought him great popularity. But the musician and the listener who craved more substantial stuff have continuously kept Rachmaninoff's name from the list of major composers. And rightly so. I remember giving up performing the Rachmaninoff concertos at the age of 24 because I became so bored with playing them repeatedly. As a pianist he was superb, his high merit in this field being recognized by all musicians. His pianism was much more classical, however, than his composing inclinations; his style, in fact, was often judged to be severe and unromantic. On 21 December 1918, Rachmaninoff played in New York, at the age of 44, having departed from Russia and its revolution in great sadness. The recital drew the following comment from one of the most respected critics of the time, James Gibbons Huneker:

The oldsters were reminded of Von Bülow. The same cold white light of analysis, the incisive touch, the strongly marked rhythms, the intellectual grasp of the musical ideas, and the sense of the relative importance in phrase-groupings proclaimed that Rachmaninoff is a cerebral, not an emotional artist.

Rachmaninoff's tall figure, his close cropped hair and the slow walk of his later years, combined with a simple stage manner, enhanced the impression of coldness. In fact, he was altogether different from the legend which attached itself to him. His face was large and generous, his expression kind; his hands, which appeared bony and hard from a distance, were so large and soft that when I shook hands with him I lost mine in the cushions of his.

The discipline of his piano-playing was the result of the extremely high standard of pianism which developed in Russia during the late 19th century. The early study and teacher relationships which are recorded in the recent biography [Note] were typical for a Russian music student of that era. Although I represent a totally different age and way of thinking as a Bach specialist, I sympathize with every situation and nuance of Rachmaninoff's early musical beginnings, for my own piano study between the ages of nine and 13 was centered in much the same milieu. My first piano teacher had been a student of, and an assistant teacher to, the great Anton Rubenstein. The teaching was classical, not romantic, as some might expect. The biography contains a procession of many people whom I have known — the most evocative memories for me being of the Russian musicians: as a child of 10 I played for Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Leopold Auer, and knew Alexander Siloti. I can vouch for the quality of the teacher-student relationship which Sergei suffered and enjoyed as a boy.

Despite unenviable trials, he grew up in a world that was geared to the outstanding individual. Today the provision for educating the uniquely gifted has withdrawn to near invisibility, the emphasis being placed on educating the average person in ever-increasing numbers. More often than not, the individual of great talent must make his own way through the culturally approved morass of educational systems planned for ordinary mentality. Since so little attention is given to individual direction, artists are in danger of becoming psychologically lost. Rachmaninoff's life was greatly upset by world events, but the United States was his refuge and home for 26 years. He was honoured there and abroad, and finally by his mother country. A cable arriving from the Soviet Union expressed congratulations from the Union of Soviet Composers for his 70th birthday (he was already in a coma and never read the message): "We greet you as a composer of whom Russian culture is proud, the greatest pianist of our time."

This biography is the definitive account of Rachmaninoff's life and work. The documentation is excellent, most of the work being based on Rachmaninoff's letters and on first-hand accounts of relatives, friends, and colleagues close to him. The book is clearly organized and contains a fine table of reference notes and a most conscientious index. One wonder why the book, published in 1956 in the United states, is so late in appearing here [in London].