A Must-Have Rachmaninoff CD

It starts quietly enough, with a simple falling-fifth motif, but the first movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff's neglected Piano Sonata 1 develops into a work of epic proportions nearly 40 minutes in length, with haunting melodies, massive dynamic contrasts, and lush, sensual harmonies.

Back in 1990, when Stereophile first recorded Canadian pianist Robert Silverman, the repertoire was Brahms. But during the sessions I told Robert that someday I'd like to record him performing the two Rachmaninoff sonatas. "I've already recorded the first sonata," he said. "It was released as a Marquis LP in the early 1980s."

I looked up the Fanfare review of that release: "Silverman's performance [of Rachmaninoff's First Piano Sonata in D Minor] is a gradually expanding one. His shaping of the multiple elements that structure the first movement is impeccable. The deeply resonant sound of the piano enhances its great drama. But wait till you get to the unspeakably beautiful Lento. Few pianists can float treble melodies as sensitively as Silverman can. I've heard no other pianist play this movement with such consummate poignance. The tone bespeaks regret and loss, but it is also phenomenally gorgeous. The sound of the recording is spacious and full. Certainly, this recording must be included in the top two or three outstanding renditions I have ever heard. This is the kind of 'big,' thunderous playing that makes one want to hear more."

Sonata 1 was recorded on both analog and early digital tape; Robert recorded Sonata 2 in 1991 with the intention of coupling it with the recording of Sonata 1 on a CD. Unfortunately, the digital master tape of Sonata 1 was unusable, so the project was abandoned.

Until a decade later, when David Lemon of Canadian record label OrpheumMasters, which in 2000 had released my recording of Robert performing the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas (now sold out), suggested that they issue a CD mastered from the analog tape of Sonata 1 and the digital tape of Sonata 2. According to Robert, David asked what had happened to the earlier analog master.

"Well, it couldn't have been any good by now. I kept it in my attic for 20 years, not in a climate-controlled vault. Still, it was worth a try. I got out my old half-track open-reel recorder, found the two huge Ampex pancakes, and plopped the first one onto the machine. The tape was in pristine condition, and the performance of the first two movements was every bit as good as the one that had been released on LP. Unfortunately, time had not been so kind to the second reel. There was too much stretching, flaking, and warping for the tape to be usable. We were back where we started.

"Then I remembered that, before beginning the 'official' recording session, I had done a runthrough of the entire sonata, which had been recorded but not used in the final edits. Sifting through my large stash of master tapes, I found it and cued up the third movement. Magically, the tape was in perfect condition."

The CD, issued a few years ago as OrpheumMasters KSP 802, sold relatively well, but OrpheumMasters then went out of business. Stereophile bought the remaining stock of the CD in summer 2006 to sell on this website, and they were all gone in two weeks. When I suggested to Robert that it would be worth reissuing the recording as a Stereophile CD, he agreed. The result, Rachmaninoff: The Piano Sonatas (Stereophile STPH019-2), is now available for $12 plus S&H from our website's secure e-commerce page.

Robert Silverman's monumental recording of the two Rachmaninoff sonatas is a must-have for anyone who loves the sound of the piano and appreciates virtuoso performances of virtuoso works.