Like his predecessor Fryderyk Chopin, Sergei Rachmaninoff was a man without a country. Homeless, penniless, and forced into exile by the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninoff had to forge a new career as a concert pianist.
With “arms of steel and a heart of gold," Rachmaninoff was considered THE great pianist-composer of the 20th century. But it wasn’t by choice. Rachmaninoff took up concertizing in earnest – and learning the standard piano repertory – only in his mid-forties, when he was forced from Russia. But even when playing Mozart, or Chopin, Rachmaninoff the composer was never far away.
Still, Chopin’s works, especially the “Funeral March” sonata, became Rachmaninoff specialties. A New York critic gushed in 1930: “There was nothing left for us but to thank our stars that we had lived when Rachmaninoff did and heard him, out of the divine light of his genius, re-create a masterpiece. It was a day of genius understanding genius.”
Today, Rachmaninoff’s Chopin interpretations get a more mixed reception. Where some hear history, clarity, and insight, others find excessive liberty-taking with the score, and leave-taking with accuracy. But there’s no questioning Rachmaninoff’s immense individuality. As Artur Rubinstein reminisced, “When he played Schumann or Chopin, even if it was contrary to my own feelings, he could convince me by the sheer impact of his personality.” Sergei Rachmaninoff: a great – and contrary – Chopinist. - Benjamin K. Roe