Pianists From The Past: Sergei Rachmaninov

My Pianists From The Past series continues this week featuring the great Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninov. Today’s article has been penned by British concert pianist, teacher and broadcaster Robin Zebaida.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943)

Aspects of Rachmaninov the pianist

Although I first became familiar with Rachmaninov’s recordings in my mid-teens while studying his Preludes, I can precisely date to a sunny day in Spring 1986 the moment at which he shot to the number one spot of my Top Ten Pianists list, where he has largely remained since. I remember it as one of those days which tells you for sure that Winter is finally over, as you notice the buds and the blossom, and generally feel lighter.

I had wandered for the first time into the newish branch of Waterstones in Kensington High Street, on my way back from the Royal College of Music, where I was in the middle of my postgraduate year. I was instantly captivated by the background music, the Ampico roll of Rachmaninov playing his early Barcarolle op 10, no 3 which I was hearing for the first time. I left with the LP under my arm, and headed straight for the nearby library to get a score so I could get cracking on this new treasure.

This Barcarolle incidentally is one of three in the key of G minor. The other two, each seemingly more beautiful than the next, are for piano duet (op.11, no.1) and piano duo (op.5, no.1).

What were the features of that recording in particular, and in his playing generally, that so grabbed me? I realise that in selecting Rachmaninov, a towering giant of the musical world in more ways than one – who can forget Stravinsky’s infamous description of him as a six-and-a-half-foot scowl – I may seriously have bitten off more than I can chew. So, what follows is a modest attempt to highlight just a few facets of his playing which particularly strike me. There will inevitably be overlap, but I’ll nominally divide them into character, rhythm, and tempo/shape.


Going back to that Stravinsky quote, I hope by now we have all been disabused of that old cliche of Rachmaninov as a grey, gaunt, gloomy exile, ever aching with rose-tinted memories of pre-Revolutionary Russia. If not, check out this delightful video footage of him goofing around with his family (Come to that, check it out anyway – it’s so heart-warming.):

For me, humour – yes, humour – is an intrinsic feature of Rachmaninov, as much in his music as in its execution. The humour is usually subtle, occasionally sardonic. Remember that old story about Kreisler sidling up to Rachmaninov at his recital in New York during a memory lapse and asking anxiously “where are we?”, only to be instantly fobbed off with the drily unhelpful response: “in Carnegie Hall”.

You can find it in the anachronistic, naughty-but-nice harmonies of the arrangement of the Bach Violin Partita in E, especially in the central Gavotte:

Or in the jazzy, Tatumesque conclusion of the Tchaikovsky Lullaby transcription:

Rachmaninov’s endings are ingenious – no limit to his imagination in this department.

Perhaps, most effectively – and cheekily – it is felt in his extreme rubati in the Polka de WR where, time after time, he teasingly brings the music almost to a grinding halt, before capriciously taking flight again.

This piece is full of such examples, but do particularly enjoy the endlessly drawn-out, flirtatious build-up to the reprise from 2:18.

Of course, the genius of this humour, and the reason it works so brilliantly, lies in Rachmaninov’s unfailing sense of pulse. It’s rather like those people who, even in unfamiliar territory, seem to know exactly where they are, and how to find their way back again thanks to an annoyingly dependable inbuilt compass. Personally, I can’t in such situations find my way out of a paper bag.

And so to the subject of…


One serendipitous consequence of researching this article – thanks, Melanie, for inviting me to write it – was making contact for the first time with Simon, the son of Miles Coverdale, with whom I studied in the mid 80s and remember with much fondness. Miles was a delightful, pipe-smoking gent and a class pianist as some recently posted recordings of his Rachmaninov on YouTube attest. I have since enjoyed several conversations with Simon Coverdale on a variety of (mostly) musical topics.

Like me, Miles was a Russophile, though I don’t think I realised it at the time. When, some years later, I was preparing for a performance of Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto – still my favourite of the four with, for my money, the best tune of the lot – he kindly gave me a cassette recording of his performances of all five concerted works. One especially memorable point he made in a lesson on the Sonata no. 2, op 36, concerned Rachmaninov’s rhythm. He took out an elastic band and started playing with it: However much you stretch, pull and distort this, he explained, you know that when you let it go it will return to exactly its original shape and size. By analogy, whatever Rachmaninov does with the pulse, there is a clear logic and principle to it that all but guarantees you could write out the original rhythm from dictation even if you had never heard the piece.

My all-time favourite Rachmaninov moment, however curious it may seem, illustrates exactly this point. Listen to the tantalising way he briefly stretches out towards infinity at 1:58 the six repeated top As at the end of the first half of the fifth variation of Mozart’s Sonata in A, K.331. (Classical purists please look away now.):

There’s another delectably timed phrase from 1:14-1:20.


Some of the outstanding musical features of Rachmaninov’s playing derive quite simply from his outstanding, effortless technique, aided doubtlessly by his enormous stature and handspan. When I listen to his recordings what comes across to me, through his sheer size as well as his virtuoso technique and a composer’s intuition, is a panoramic view of the music afforded to few. Another of Miles Coverdale’s points about Rachmaninov was the way every phrase/movement/piece has an apex towards which the music inexorably drives, and from which it will eventually recede. In that sense, Rachmaninov’s creative style perhaps resembles the “vanishing point” in art. If a painting is crafted in true perspective, then the eye should be automatically drawn to the place where all the lines appear to converge. Once again, this feature applies as much to his own compositions as his playing.

Many of Rachmaninov’s tempi, particularly perhaps in his own works, are very much at the faster end of the spectrum. This, together with aforementioned characteristics, lends to even slow pieces a drive, a vitality and sometimes a sense of urgency to his playing. Take for example the roll of his Elegie, op 3, no.1:

This piece is often spoiled by mawkish, over-indulgent tempi which can render it shapeless. Rachmaninov, by contrast, after an almost violent climax building up from around 2:36, gives us a deathly-pale reprise but ending, surprisingly, in a quite furious flash of anger.

In even the most lushly romantic scores of his, there is an instinctive gift for counterpoint which adds both to the richness and to the incredible craftsmanship of his writing. I was delighted to find a few years ago this stunningly simple yet elegant version of Tchaikovsky’s Waltz, op 40, no 8:  

Having recorded it myself * in 2004 – yes, you knew there had to be a cheap plug in here somewhere – and thought I had done a reasonable job, I was amazed to find perspectives I hadn’t noticed till I heard Rachmaninov’s interpretation. I love the way he characterises the rising bass at the start with staccato crotchets, and how it really sings out to you as it descends in more sustained notes. And, being the contrapuntist he is, he cannot resist adding an imitative tenor line at the repetition of the middle section at 1:05.

To wrap up: The features that have so distinguished themselves to me in Rachmaninov’s playing for over three decades include the supremacy and warmth of an often-rhetorical melodic line; the certainty about where one phrase comes from and to where it inevitably leads (vanishing point); the vigorous and incessant forward drive of the music, and the remarkable rhythmic elasticity which enables him to perform such delightfully wicked outrages as the Mozart mentioned earlier, without leaving you in the slightest doubt of the metre or pulse. I should add, in particular, that for me he has the gift of expressing sentiment so that the listener feels it, without ever getting narcissistically wrapped up in it himself – about as appealing as a comedian laughing at his own jokes. There is the clear sense that however much Rachmaninov gives, there is always spare energy left in the can. This is not to suggest a sense of emotional detachment or aloofness, more a superabundance of ability and a seemingly infinite creative hinterland.

If the above has whetted your appetite for more, here are a couple of further Youtube recordings I can recommend:

“A window in Time” Disks 1 & 2, where you can listen to Rachmaninov’s original rolls recorded on an all-bells-and-whistles Bosendorfer 290SE reproducing piano.

Hear Rachmaninov demonstrating to Eugene Ormandy how he wanted his Symphonic Dances, op 45 performed.

I’m offering a free cd of “Off the beaten track” (Rachmaninov Elegie and Tchaikovsky Waltz included) to the first three people contacting me through my website – with thanks for having made it this far! www.pianistUK.com/cd

©Robin Zebaida

Robin Zebaida


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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