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A Long-Hidden, Homemade Recording Reveals Rachmaninoff Playing Live

Adrian Siegel Collection/Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives
Sergei Rachmaninoff with Eugene Ormandy at a rehearsal at the Academy of Music in 1938.

A mysterious, homemade 1940 recording, now public, shines a new light on the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff, who famously never allowed recordings or broadcasts of his live performances. WRTI's Susan Lewis has the story.

On Sunday, October 20th at 1 PM, you can hear Rachmaninoff's first symphony in a concert broadcast of The Philadelphia Orchestra on WRTI 90.1. Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the orchestra in a program that also features Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for winds and orchestra and Anna Clyne's Masquerade.

Jazz pianist, band leader, and audio engineer Ward Marston co-founded Marston Records in 1997 to restore and reissue historical recordings. He's been collecting and restoring historic audio recordings for decades, and as the audio engineer for BMG's complete Rachmaninoff package in the 1990s, he had a comprehensive knowledge of the way this Russian master played the piano. 

Or so he thought, until he heard a recording of Rachmaninoff playing at an informal gathering with Eugene Ormandy—a recording made in 1940  just weeks before Symphonic Dances premiered with The Philadelphia Orchestra—and kept private for decades.

He was astonished. "It was unimaginable that here we are listening to Rachmaninoff performing a symphonic work at the piano as a kind of run-through of the piece for Ormandy."

Listen to the interview with Ward Marston, where he tells WRTI's Susan Lewis the story about the surprising discovery and restoration of a 1940 recording of Rachmaninoff playing for Eugene Ormandy.

The recording surfaced when a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania happened upon it buried in a box of Eugene Ormandy's private collection. The sound was fuzzy, the microphone far from its source. But there he was—the great Rachmaninoff—playing and even singing along.

Scratchy or not, it's difficult to overstate its' significance, says Marston. "It's not just a unique recording of Rachmaninoff;  I don't know of any other instance of a major composer playing an almost improvised version of an orchestral piece!" 

"What you learn is how Rachmaninoff wanted the piece to be played. There's a tremendous amount of elasticity in his performance, tempe that are accelerating or decelerating and also phrasing that crescendos and diminuendos and that sort of thing. And it's also fascinating to learn, you know, what melodic parts Rachmaninoff wanted to be to bring out."

He was also moved by how beautiful the playing is. "It's added a completely new dimension to what I had in my mind what Rachmaninoff's playing was." 

The restored recording is now part of a three CD set issued by Marston records, which also includes other historic recordings. 

The Philadelphia Orchestra premiered Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances in January of 1941, and recorded it in 1960.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.