Thursday, 7 January 2010



Legendary Rachmaninoff Song Transcriptions
Earl Wild, piano
Ivory Classics CD-74001
Full Price / TT: 77:55

This review was originally published in The Flying Inkpot.

At last! At long, long last! The legendary American pianist Earl Wild’s incomparable and matchless transcriptions of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s songs have found a new – and definitively permanent – home on CD.

For years, eleven songs in this selection (originally recorded in 1982) were available on the hard-to-find Dell Arte label, a gem of a disc that is deserving of the Penguin Guide’s coveted Rosette or its equivalent. That album never quite made it to Singapore and pianophiles had to make do with four songs (including two new transcriptions) recorded in 1991 that appeared on the Chesky label, appended to Earl Wild’s magisterial performances of Rachmaninoff’s Chopin and Corelli Variations. Now, all these performances and three more “live” recordings from 1983 make up eighteen glorious tracks (thirteen songs in total) for this well-filled disc.
Like much of Rachmaninoff’s music, his songs or romances (to be more precise) are characterised by a very strong melodic line, which make them ideal subjects for transcription. Curiously, Rachmaninoff only transcribed two of these for piano: Lilacs and Daisies (or Marguerites), both of which are given simple and rather understated treatments.
Earl Wild (left) does what Liszt had done for Schubert’s Lieder more than a century ago, taking the melodic line as a starting point and weaving a web of fantasy around it by way of imaginative figurations and harmonies. Each song becomes either an intimate Song without words (to borrow a Mendelssohnian title) or transformed Cinderella-like into a concert showpiece, but retaining the original’s innate beauty and mystique.

The most obvious candidate for transcription is the wordless Vocalise, Op.34 No.14, also a subject of others pianists. Unlike Alan Richardson’s very literal, almost note-for-note take (which has been recorded by both Evgeny Kissin and Emil Gilels) or Zoltan Kocsis’ famous version that leaves the filigree to the very last page, Wild’s transcription begins his elaborations midway through the song. Garlands of thirds, sprinkled liberally, herald an impassioned chord-filled climax that tops anything the original has to offer. Almost a full minute separates the two recordings of this song. Despite culminating in the same febrile state of ecstasy as the 1991 reading, the earlier (1982), takes more time to smell the flowers. Both performances represent elegance personified.

There are three takes of In the Silent Night, Op.4 No.3, whose durations range from 4’06” to 4”50”, suggesting that Wild is never a slave to the stopwatch and – like a singer – does not mind lingering on certain phrases and luxuriating in the lush ornamentation. Listening through the versions, one senses an urgency and edginess in the “live” recording from 1983, which is also the swiftest of the three. The presence of an audience apparently does make a difference to the performer.

In O, Cease Thy Singing, Op.4 No.4 (also known as O, Never Sing To Me or Ne poy krasavitsa), Wild skillfully marries the exotic-sounding Georgian melody (that merely serves as the introduction) with the declamatory first line of the song itself. Like the tale of Sheherazade and Shariyah communing at midnight, this is one oriental fantasy that is hard to put down.

Wild’s intimate knowledge and mastery of Rachmaninoff’s (left) piano music would explain his treatment of Floods of Spring, Op.14 No.11. Here the transcendental technique required for the tumultuous Prélude in B flat major (Op.23 No.2) and Second Sonata (Op.36) is summoned and delivered with great aplomb in this Étude-tableaux-like number. In the fluid, shimmering textures of The Little Island, Op.14 No.2, one finds a debt to Liszt (Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este) and Rachmaninoff’s Prélude in G major, Op.32 No.5. While Rachmaninoff’s style is often simulated, there are no mistaking Wild’s own inimitable touches.

Wonders also abound in the other songs. Words need not express the pain of separation in Do Not Grieve, Op.14 No.8, and On the Death of a Linnet, Op.21 No.8, a beseeching plea of To the Children, Op.26 No.7, and the dreamy reverie of Where Beauty Dwells (How Fair this Spot), Op.21 No.7, all of which come through magically in Wild’s hands. For good measure, the words of each song are provided for in the booklet in their English translations.

Clearly, Earl Wild is a pianist and transcriber in the same league as Rachmaninoff, Horowitz and Cziffra, just to name three virtuosos who thrived on the art of transcription and thrilled audiences all at once. The latter three keyboard wizards have passed on, but Wild, who was born 6 years (!) before Cziffra, is still going strong. He’s not hailed a living legend for nothing. As for this disc, you won’t find anything that comes close to it – it’s a definite classic.

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