Rachmaninoff Isle of the Dead cut or not?
Posted by Hans Doerrscheidt on March 16, 2019, 6:33 pm
I first met the “Isle of the dead” as a teenager when playing clarinet in a community symphony orchestra in the mid 90s and it was programmed by the ambitious conductor (I am sure he suffered a bit and maybe regretted his decision, at least that’s what he looked like a few times during the rehearsals). |
As reference we had the Concertgebouw/Ashkenazy recording back then, which to my ears did not leave anything to be wanted for.
A few years later, I heard the Reiner version, which is dear to my heart mainly for non-musical reasons (memories of a mentor since deceased), plus back then I Iiked the sforzato triplet after  better the way Reiner did it - “dat dat dat DAT” instead of Ashkenazy’s “datatatat” (which admittedly is more in line with what the score implies).
Then last year, I finally decided to buy a used copy of the old Rachmaninoff RCA box, containing the maestro’s own reading. I am not sure to be honest I listened to the Isle from that box, at that time being more interested in the piano concertos.
But then Marston put out their “Symphonic Dances” box, containing among other things the SR memorial broadcast of the Isle with Ormandy, and something struck me as odd, comparing it in my aural memory with the long engraved Ashkenazy version.
Which brings me to the point of this posting: The reason Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 1929 recording runs about 2 min less than the average recording of today is not due to a particularly fast reading. It is because he had cut about 13% of the original music, 62 out of 478 bars!
And apparently he confirmed these revisions again shortly before his death for “everyone” to adhere to. See this article from the Philadelphia Orchestra website, even showing a photograph of the first page of the score with SR’s hand-written note. It doesn’t even start at at the beginning anymore!
Ormandy sticks to those cuts both in the broadcast and, with one exception, also on the 1954 studio recording.
That tells us that the one “fast” version from your batch really is Pletnev’s, because he plays all 478 bars and still comes out way below 20 minutes.
To my ears the cut parts are not really “waste” but belong to the piece. (I also like the original restored 4th piano concerto at least as much as SR’s revised shorter version.) I can accept the cuts musically, the piece still works. And after all, “Sergei said so!”
What I simply don’t understand, and incidentally Pletnev in that case also adheres to SR’s own reading, is the twice slowing down during the passage between  and , bars 5-6 and 11-12. “Rubato” as in “rubbing it in”?
What is your favorite? Cut or uncut...
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Comparative reviews of 10 unidentified performances of Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead by three MusicWeb reviewers.