by Marvin J. Ward
Northampton, MA, 6 & 7 November 2009. Most Americans think that Sergei Rachmaninoff made his American début premièring his 3rd piano concerto in concert with the NY Symphony Society, under the baton of Walter Damrosch, in NYC’s New (later Century) Theater on 28 November 1909, performance that was memorably repeated in Carnegie Hall with the NY Philharmonic under the baton of Gustav Mahler in January 1910. In fact, however, his 1st performance, not only on American soil, but also in solo recital, occurred on Thursday, 4 November 1909, in Smith’s College Hall here, played on a Mason and Hamlin piano.
He was probably here, where he seems to have stayed for only a few days, because his Boston-based manager thought he ought to give an “out of town” performance prior to the NYC début. The College had recently established its Music Department, in 1903, and offered a “concert course” in its “Assembly Hall,” on whose programs major international musicians, such as Paderewski, appeared. Smith’s 1st president, Laurenus Clark Seelye, believed that music and art should be part of the core curriculum along with the liberal arts such as literature and history in this then 34-year old school, among the early ones for women, and still for women only at the undergraduate level. The course continued into the 1970s. The Music Department is also having a celebratory season this year and the College marked the centenary of the composer’s visit with 2 concerts devoted entirely to his music this weekend.
The 1st was entitled “Rachmaninoff in Songs and Dances” and featured both faculty and students. The opening work was a transcription for piano duet of the famous “Vocalise,” Op. 34/14, arr. by Anderson & Roe, the latter being a member of the duo, Elizabeth Joy Roe, currently in the 1st of 2 years as Visiting Artist and Lecturer; the other member was faculty pianist Judith Gordon. It offered a different perspective on the frequently heard work, one that was as interesting and pleasing to watch as to hear with the graceful balletic intertwining of the musicians’ arms in the frequent crossovers.
This was followed by a group of 5 songs sung by faculty soprano Karen Smith Emerson, partnered by staff accompanist and composer Clifton J. Noble. They performed “In the Silence of the Secret Night,” Op. 4/3, “How Peaceful,” Op. 21/7, “Lilacs,” Op. 21/5, “Sing Not, O Lovely One,” Op. 4/4, and “Spring Torrents,” Op. 14/11, Emerson using a score only for the central song. Her performance was brilliant, her diction its usual crystal clear, and her interpretive delivery its always convincingly sincere, offering more than the customary statuesquely static of so many recitalists. With the exception of Pushkin, author of the text of the 4th, the poets are unknown here. Translations were provided in the printed program.
These were followed by the composer’s sole work for female (or children’s) chorus, Six Chansons, Op. 15. Most Russian choral music is for male chorus and features sonorous deep basses (Think his All Night Vigil, Op. 37), due largely to the influence of the church. These songs are not a cycle, and use texts by 5 different poets, largely unknown to us (Lermontov, the author of 2, being the sole possible exception); translations were again provided. They were beautifully presented by the Smith College Chamber Singers, a 62-year-old ensemble that has a long and prestigious history with international tours and numerous firsts and awards to its credit, under the direction of Jonathan Hirsh, and ably and sensitively accompanied by college organist and harpsichordist Grant Moss at the piano. Like the arrangement of the “Vocalise,” they offered a lovely perception of a lesser-known area of the composer’s output.
After intermission, Gordon and Roe again joined forces, this time on 2 pianos, to present the program’s dances, in the form of the Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos, Op. 17, whose movements are entitled: “Prelude,” “Valse,” “Romance,” and “Tarantella.” This work is always a crowd pleaser, and the pianists pleased this one with their fine rendition in perfect synchronization. Note that all the works performed except for the “Vocalise” were composed prior to the 1909 visit, tough none were on the program of that recital, which was nonetheless exclusively of Rachmaninoff’s own compositions.
The following evening, after the dedication of a bust of the composer by Russian sculptor Gregory Potatsky, Russian pianist Vladimir Tropp, of the Gnessin Academy of Music and Moscow Conservatory, Rachmaninoff and Scriabin specialist, and commissioner and donor of the bust, played an all-Rachmaninoff program. It featured works from all periods of the composer’s output, and deliberately included some of those he had played in 1909, recital whose account in the College’s newsletter had been written by the namesake of the present-day 700-seat concert hall, filled this evening to overflow capacity, Elsie I. Sweeney. (The local newspaper, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, established in 1786, and in continuous publication since, also covered it; a trip to to Forbes Library [also home of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum] where its microfilmed archives can be consulted, yielded the 2 items appended below.)
The 1st half was devoted to a selection of 12 of the Preludes (published in 2 sets of 12 each as Opp. 23 and 32). Rachmaninoff never played all 24 (or even either set) in their (its) entirety in a single recital in his entire career, but he often offered representative selections from either or both. Note that the most famous one, in c#, is not in either set; it comes from his Five Fantasy Pieces, Op. 3/2, from which Nos. 1 and 4, the Élégie and Polichinelle respectively, were played on the 2nd half this evening. We heard Preludes Nos. 1 in f#, 3 in d, 4 in D, 5 in g, 6 in Eb, 7 in c, and 10 in Gb from Op. 23, and 2 in bb, 5 in G, 7 in F, 10 in b, and 12 in g# from Op. 32. The Élégie opened the 2nd half, followed by the 2nd version of the Mélodie, Op. 10/4, then the Polichinelle, and then the Barcarolle, Op. 10/3 and Humoresque, Op. 10/5. The 1909 program included the last 4 of these works, and concluded with the c# prelude, the Sonata in d, Op. 28, having opened it. This evening’s recital closed with the very different, highly structured, cerebral, and un-Romantic Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Op. 42 from 1931. The c# prelude was offered as an encore – how could it not be?
Tropp’s performance exuded what we have come to perceive as ‘archetypical Russian Romantic pianism.’ It seemed to almost visually ooze effortlessly from his fingers onto the keys, without any exaggerated bodily movements to force it out. It was marked by enormous abrupt contrasts in volume from ffff to pppp and back. Some of the louder portions, and indeed many of the individual notes throughout, seemed to be executed with great force or punch, as we have come to expect, but very different from the much lighter touch the Zenph Re-Performance CD of Rachmaninoff’s own recordings reviewed elsewhere in these pages conveys.
It was, nonetheless, a magnificent, masterful, and magical performance, perhaps the greatest for all these adjectives that I have ever heard in this pianistic tradition, transporting in many ways, even though I am avowedly not particularly a fan of this performance style. Although Tropp used scores, the music was clearly a part of his being, making them appear quite unnecessary. He has had a lifetime with this music; he turns 70 on the 9th (I am a mere 2 years his junior), and the audience was invited to serenade him with “Happy Birthday,” Noble taking over the keyboard of the NY Steinway D used for both performances (with a Bösendorfer Imperial Grand added for the closing Suite on Friday evening), request that it enthusiastically granted.
A simple single-fold cream-colored 11” x 17” sheet printed program was provided, containing a reproduction of a photo of the young Rachmaninoff (He was 36 when he came here.), a fine essay by Noble, to which I am indebted for much of the information about the 1909 performance, as well as a bio of Tropp inside. A note about and small reproduction of the Potatsky bust appears on the back cover. The program itself was on a matching slightly trimmed 8” x 11” insert with program notes, also by Noble, about the works in the context of the composer’s biography on its reverse. It will make an excellent archival document for the bi-centennial celebration in 2109. (Will this account be around then?)
Rachmaninoff returned to Smith 3 times, in 1921, 1928, and 1941, playing Steinways on all 3 occasions. Through a set of totally unrelated circumstances, his cousin and sister-in-law, Sophie Satin (younger sister of his wife Natalya), with whom he had lived, beginning in 1889, at Ivanovka, her family’s country estate some 300 miles from Moscow, taught in the college’s botany department from 1942 to 1955. This was Tropp’s 3rd visit; College President Carol Christ challenged him to match Rachmaninoff. We hope he will!
Daily Hampshire Gazette, Thursday, November 8, 1909
Smith College News
The program for the Rachmaninoff concert to be given this evening in Assembly Hall is as follows:
Sonate, D minor, opus 28.
a. Allegro moderato
c. Allegro Vivace.
Four Preludes in B, F sharp, D and G.
Rachmaninoff will play and conduct his own music throughout his entire tour. This will be his first concert given in America.
Daily Hampshire Gazette, Friday, November 9, 1909
Rachmaninoff’s Recital [No byline]
This city had the distinction last evening of being the scene of the American début of Sergei Rachmaninoff, the distinguished Russian pianist and composer who received a fine welcome at Smith college assembly hall, where he played a fairly representative program of his own compositions.
While critical attention was paid to his work last evening, much interest centered in the personality of the composer and performer who presents himself primarily as the former, but who proved last evening that he was an accomplished pianist. On the concert platform he presents the aspect of the composer rather than of the seasoned concertizer. His manner is a little brusque and shy, and he comes directly to the matter at hand with no nonsense. He is a larger and more powerfully-built man than his pictures suggest, young-looking, rather above medium height, square-shouldered, raw-boned, smooth-faced, and quietly energetic. He wears his hair short, and his blunt, slightly irregular features are rather American. He has learned a little English, but German thus far is his medium of communication.
Though still one of the younger Russian composers, Rachmaninoff has for a number of years enjoyed an international reputation and has gained by the recent wave of interest in Russian music. Tchaikovsky was the prime cause of it, no doubt, but the others have profited by it – Rimsky-Korsakoff, Arensky, Litvinoff, Alabieff, Sriabine, Glazunow, and the rest. Rachmaninoff has been well represented by several of his larger chamber-music compositions which the Kneisel quartet and other organizations have played, and by orchestral works. But he has made a surer bid for prompt popularity by a number of attractive small pieces for piano, which have greatly commended themselves to amateurs. These figure in his recital programs, but he is to play with the principal orchestras of the country, and an interesting feature of his tour will be a new concerto, his third, for piano and orchestra, which he will play rom manuscript. He is now in his way to Boston, where he is to rehearse this concerto with the Symphony orchestra, htough he will not play it in public till Monday, the 8th, when he will appear in Philadelphia with the Boston Orchestra.
Ed. Note: [sic.] for all variant spellings (incl. letter cases) and punctuations, which have been carefully reproduced from the original.