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 Recording of the Week  Composers' Own Recordings

Two of our best-selling recordings from our current Sony BMG box set promotion (which ends on Wednesday) are the recordings of Rachmaninov playing his own Piano Concertos and Stravinsky conducting his own works.

Throughout history a number of great composers have also been superb conductors - Mendelssohn, Mahler and Richard Strauss being ones which immediately spring to mind - but it is only in the past 80 or so years that the technology has been in place to start preserving some of their performances. True, there are some piano rolls and early acoustic recordings from before this date (indeed even a piano roll of Mahler playing some of his own works) but generally speaking it was the late 1920s with the advent of electrical recording that any quantity of recordings began to be made and preserved.

Elgar conducting
Elgar conducting

One of the early pioneers of electrical recording was Elgar who between 1926 and 1933 recorded almost all his own major works for EMI (with a very long baton!). Unfortunately a lot of them are not currently available but with the help of Naxos a few are. They display a very different style of orchestral playing from what we hear today with frequent portamento (sliding between notes) in the strings and a very sparing use of vibrato. There is also a somewhat casual treatment of rhythm and, compared to most modern recordings, a lot of very fast tempos.

Rachmaninov
Rachmaninov

Fast tempos also dominate Rachmaninov's playing, but what also comes across is a much more straight-forward approach and overall a less sentimental account. Stravinsky's recordings stand out less from alternative accounts mainly because they were made much later.

So how should we evaluate the composer recordings? Should we ultimately be viewing them as the 'definitive versions' of these works, performed exactly how the composer intended them?

Well no, probably not. For a start, not all composers were great conductors. Stravinsky although fairly well thought of certainly wasn't considered a great conductor; Tippett by all accounts was pretty dreadful. But the obvious pull of the composer's name on the concert programme or the record sleeve often made them an obvious choice. The fact that many composers (including Stravinsky) recorded the same work more than once, often quite differently, also goes against the 'definitive' argument.

That said however, listening to the composers themselves performing is a fascinating and often ear-opening experience and the Rachmaninov set below is a prime example.

Elgar: Violin Concerto & Enigma Variations

Yehudi Menuhin (violin), London Symphony Orchestra & Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, Sir Edward Elgar

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Elgar: Cello Concerto & Symphony No. 2

Beatrice Harrison (cello), London Symphony Orchestra, New Symphony Orchestra, Edward Elgar

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC