Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was one of the finest pianists of his day, perhaps of all time. Certainly we are lucky to have an opportunity to hear his playing from the many recordings he made. As a composer his piano works certainly give an indication of their creator’s technique, especially their rhythmic qualities.
It is these rhythmic qualities that provide the biggest challenge for any transcription for the organ, something which Jeremy Filsell www.jeremyfilsell.com has recognised in his transcriptions and arrangements recorded for Signum Records www.signumrecords.com entitled Rachmaninov: Transcriptions and Arrangements for Organ. It helps immensely that Filsell is deeply immersed in Rachmaninov’s music and has performed the composer to some acclaim on his recording for Signum Classics (SIGCD230).
The only other recording I have come across of a transcription of Rachmaninov is of his tone poem The Isle of the Dead, op. 29 transcribed by Axel Langmann and issued by Oehms Classics.
For his recording Jeremy Filsell plays the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ: Dobson Opus 76 www.dobsonorgan.com/html/instruments/op76_philadelphia.html in the Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, USA. This huge organ, work on which commenced in 2001, was not completed until 2005.
Filsell opens his recital with a transcription of Rachmaninov’s Etude-Tableau, Op. 39, No. 9 which lends itself very well to the organ, sounding in this performance as though it could have been written for the instrument. At times it sounds quite modern with Jeremy Filsell making some fine choices of registration that add much colour and texture, necessary to compensate for the unavoidable loss of agility that the piano would provide, though played here with a great panache.
Filsell refers to his arrangement of the Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42 as a re-realization, acknowledging the difficulties in playing the work on an organ.
It opens with a quiet, simply presented theme that Filsell slowly and gently develops with some lovely counterpoint. Filsell cleverly uses certain stops to give little details and some captivating sounds. When the organ sounds out more loudly and rhythmically there is some terrific playing, the music taking on a whole character in this guise. Often the theme is given over to the pedals creating a sense of tension. Overall this organist shows just how the music can gain in colours and textures that offset the loss of that ultimate rhythmic clarity, though that is not to say that Filsell doesn’t bring a fine clarity and dexterity. At times he shows how this organ can really roar, bringing a terrific, dynamic presence as well as some beautiful flourishes, light and transparent of texture. In moments of serene repose Filsell often finds some attractive use of stops in Rachmaninov’s little decorative details. Rachmaninov’s harmonies towards the coda are especially well done, quite beautiful.
Rachmaninov’s early Fugue (1891) sits extremely well with the organ as such a work might be expected to do. It is allowed a natural flow, a rise centrally, falling to the coda in this very finely done transcription and performance.
There is an exquisitely done Prelude, Op. 32: No. 11 in B major that speaks, though through a different medium, as eloquently as ever in this subtly written transcription.
The much recorded and transcribed Vocalise, Op. 34, No. 14 is here transcribed for organ by Nigel Potts. It does tend to have its edges smoothed off somewhat, as opposed to say the cello transcription and the original for soprano, but Filsell’s sensitivity to colour and texture maintains an attractive melodic outpouring.
I believe Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 to be his finest work. His own arrangement for two pianos can also reveal some terrific aspects of the music and is enjoyable in its own right. Nevertheless, a transcription for organ is likely to be quite a challenge.
Here the Non allegro gets off to a fine start with Filsell and the Dobson organ providing a terrific impact, never taken too fast or too loud but with a fine weight. As the music develops Filsell finds many fine colours and textures, building the drama and excitement brilliantly with lovely, well-judged harmonies in the quieter central section, never losing Rachmaninov’s reflective, melancholic side, rather illuminating it. Filsell never loses anything of the orchestral original’s thrust and dynamism as we are led back to the opening theme and a beautifully done coda where the Dies Irae that permeates so much of this work, appears.
The Andante con moto (Tempo di valse) has some lovely flourishes with a fine choice of registrations. As the movement develops, one does miss the clarity and sheer rhythmic articulation that only an orchestra or two pianos can bring, though Filsell compensates so much by his terrific colours and textures, bringing some original sounds to the music. Filsell knows just when to change registration to add the right effect, transparency or weight. The very fine coda is perfectly judged.
The marking for the final movement marked Lento assai - Allegro vivace - Lento assai - Come prima - Allegro Vivace indicates just what Jeremy Filsell was up against in arranging this movement. Yet he opens with a finely built drama again with the most carefully chosen registrations. As the rhythmic tension builds, he rises to the challenge brilliantly with some exceptionally fine playing, terrific articulation and phrasing. There is a beautifully return to the lento and some tremendous surges of power as the music slowly rises, impressively as the opening theme returns. Filsell brings so many different tones, textures and colours swirling out of the music, building tremendously to the moment when the Dies Irae appears in its full glory before leading to a terrific coda with a fine flourish.
I enjoyed this disc immensely and am particularly glad to have heard the Symphonic Dances played so skilfully and sensitively by this fine musician. Jeremy Filsell could not do a finer job with these arrangements even if the originals will always be preferred. He is never merely showy, but always at the service of the music.
He receives a first rate recording that gives the organ space to reveal its wide dynamic range but retains an impact and detail. There are interesting booklet notes from the organist as well as full organ specifications.