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A Unique Testament: Rachmaninov’s Own Recordings

His brilliant compositions and legendary virtuosity aside,Sergei Rachmaninov(1873-1943) was also unique in quite a different way: although born in the late 19thcentury and steeped in the Romantic musical tradition, he was one of the first pianist-composers to take advantage of the nascent recording technology during the dawn of the last century, leaving behind him a significant number of recordings of great historical and artistic value.

On 18 April 1919, less than two years following his arrival in the United States, Rachmaninov started his first gramophone recording session after having signed a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company. The collaboration proved highly successful, and Rachmaninov was subsequently marketed and promoted by the company as one of their big recording artists. He continued to record for Victor (and its successor, RCA Victor) until 1942, one year before his death.

Previous to his collaboration with Victor, Rachmaninov had recorded a selection of piano pieces for Edison Records. After agreeing on a limited contract for ten released sides, Rachmaninov recorded on a Lauter concert grand piano with the final outcome satisfying both Edison Records and the composer. However, no further recordings were made, as Thomas Edison considered the ten sides rather sufficient.

Moreover, Rachmaninov was also involved with music on piano rolls. On 17 March 1919 he completed his first piano rolls for the American Piano Company (Ampico), and would go on to make a total of 35 piano rolls (12 of which were his own compositions) for the company’s reproducing piano. After Rachmaninov was invited to listen to a proof copy of his first recording, he allegedly exclaimed: "Gentlemen—I, Sergei Rachmaninov, have just heard myself play!"

Many of Rachmaninov’s recordings are considered classics, including his renditions ofSchumann’sCarnavalandChopin’s Piano Sonata No.2. Rachmaninov also made recordings of some of his most important works, such asRhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, hisThird Symphony, and the symphonic poemIsle of the Dead. He also recorded all four of his piano concertos, an everlasting testament of tremendous historical – and aesthetic – value, which continues to inspire pianists to this day, providing them with a unique insight into Rachmaninov’s unequalled technique and breathtaking, masterly pianism.

Mimis Chrysomallis


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