First recording of discovered Rachmaninoff work released

7 July 2006

The world premiere recording of an unpublished Rachmaninoff sketch discovered and reconstructed by concert pianist and Conservatorium PhD candidate Scott Davie has just been released on Davie's latest ABC Classics CD.

Pianist Scott Davie
Pianist Scott Davie

Mr Davie, who lectures in Russian music history at the Conservatorium, found the sketch of the piano piece in a box of uncatalogued papers in the Rachmaninoff archives in Washington's Library of Congress, while researching for his PhD on the composer's melodies.

He was "quite amazed", he said, to uncover the short sketch in Rachmaninoff's hand, hidden amongst a pile of totally blank manuscript pages where it had been languishing for possibly 60 years or more.

Satisfied that it was complete in itself, whether Rachmaninoff had intended it to stand alone or be incorporated into something larger later, Davie sought and was granted permission to make an exact pencil copy which he brought back to Sydney.

As the sketch was on Russian manuscript paper unlikely to have been available in the West, Davie concluded it had probably been one of the few possessions Rachmaninoff had considered important enough to have taken into exile with him at the time of the 1917 revolution.

The style of the piece bore this out.

"The piece is a template of Rachmaninoff's style in his last years in Russia, which didn't really continue after that period," he said. "Eclectic, short-form, pictorial, experimental, harmonically unpredictable, modern - in fact this was possibly the most modern phase of his composing life."

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sergei Rachmaninoff

In the West, while Rachmaninoff did later return to composing - mostly large-form works in a more pared-back style different from both his short, modern works and the earlier, more conservative audience pleasers - his reputation as a composer was greatly eclipsed by his reputation as the most famous pianist of his time, Davie said.

"He's an extraordinarily interesting composer who just maybe had some bad press for being too popular for a while."

The discovered, two-page manuscript was a shorthand sketch, and not refined for publication, so Davie did have some reconstruction work to do on it: determining the point at which the beginning joined back to the final lines of music, for instance, and deciphering a few unclear notes.

"But I'd say it's 98 per cent accurate," he said.

Davie looks forward to publishing the piece soon and will be interested to see what other pianists make of it. His own interpretation is bright and optimistic.

Till his discovery of the work, the most recent Rachmaninoff 'find' had probably been the short Piano Piece in D Minor, published in 1973 but dating from 1917, Davie said. That piece, along with two other short works written in the same year and published in Rachmaninoff's lifetime, are also included on Davie's latest CD, setting the new piece - which is in A flat major - in its style category and probable timeframe.

The newly released CD, which Davie chose to record on the Conservatorium's Overs piano, also includes his rendition of Rachmaninoff's infrequently played First Piano Sonata - "perhaps his most densely textured and difficult work" - as well as the title track, Mussorgsky's popular Pictures from an Exhibition.

It's Davie's second ABC Classics CD, following on from Lilacs (2002) which also featured Rachmaninoff played on an Overs.

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Pianist Scott Davie in the Conservatorium's Verbrugghen Hall. (Photo:Winner of NSW Portrait Photographer 2006 Award for Michael Chetham)
Pianist Scott Davie in the Conservatorium's Verbrugghen Hall. (Photo:Winner of NSW Portrait Photographer 2006 Award for Michael Chetham)