The ones that nearly got away: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Preludes (Complete)

[Sergei Rachmaninov - Preludes (Alexis Weissenberg)]

My piano teacher wanted me to learn Sergei Rachmaninoff’s prelude in C-sharp minor. I didn’t get past the first page. I bought a tape of Rachmaninoff’s complete preludes, and it sufficiently scared me off from trying any of those pieces at tempo.

At the time, my knowledge of classical music was scant. I knew the usual dead Germans — Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Schumann — from piano exercises, but it was all just a monolith to my junior high self. Then my piano teacher introduced to some 20th century Russians — Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Rachmaninoff. These composers started to break down traditional harmony, and I became intrigued by the dissonance of their works.

Except Rachmaninoff, of course. His music was firmly planted in the 19th century, but I hadn’t yet developed an ear to distinguish the various eras. I figured if Rachmaninoff lived in the early 20th century, that made him a “20th Century Composer”.

The more I explored music of the modern era, the more I found Rachmaninoff wanting, and the tape I bought with all of his preludes would get sold for cash to make way for composers who aligned more with my tastes.

But I had already played it so many times that they actually sunk into my subconscious. When I retook my undergraduate music classes some 25 years later, a classmate would rehearse one of Rachmaninoff’s preludes, and I could hum along in my mind’s ear.

I don’t remember much about that tape. I kept a barebones catalog of my collection, but I didn’t note who performed those preludes. I just remember it was an RCA recording.

The Alexis Weissenberg compilation I picked up at the thrift store seemed to fit the bill. Playing it felt familiar, as if it made an exact mental match to what I remember. The first recording you hear of any classical work becomes a litmus, and if you internalize it, you can tell when someone else’s interpretation rubs against that perception.

The Weissenberg recordings felt like I had come home.

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