Several recordings made by pianist and master teacher Adele Marcus in the 1940s were just made available on pianist Jeffrey Biegel's website. One of the most striking is a performance of the opening movement of Rachmaninoff's second concerto, led by conductor Alfred Wallenstein.
The concerto opens [1:00] with bell-like chords that require enormous stretch. Marcus breaks them, common enough, but also accents the break rather than trying to hide it. Exposed, honest and confident, it created a syncopated feel that gave these chords a jazzy sway.
She voiced the bass with clarity [1:23] during the dark march of the first theme group, and found ways to voice phrases that articulated a sense of struggle overcome through a determination to be heard.
The second theme group [3:10] is a lesson in how to advance lyricism. The singing quality of touch that Marcus used allowed her to embrace detail without losing large gestures and motions. The interaction between the piano and the oboe and clarinet at [4:38] is haunting and leads to cadence [4:54] that absolutely floats. And...
(In case you happen to be a millennial or have not had the pleasure of playing discs like these on an old turntable, the interruption you hear at [5:26] is the end of the first record that comprises this recording. You can hear the needle tracking again after the second side has been placed at [5:35]. This recording required three 78 rpm discs. One can hear the tensions between how this music resisted and fought a technology that tried to contain it, and yet how that same technology managed to preserve it for us to hear today.)
[5:41] just like that we continue mid-thought toward the development.
The opening bars of the development are the only extended place where the piano is silent. The fleeting transitory music of the exposition is developed before ringing repeated chords [7:05] lead us to the recapitulation.
The sound that Marcus produced in this section is thrilling, and the tempo pressed slightly faster [7:38], to allow the piano to break free from the march. There is something very consistent, and personal, in the way Marcus created this moment from potentials within the very first chords that opened the movement. Very powerful.
One of my favorite moments anytime I hear this movement is the surprising gesture at [9:08] when we expect the clanging transition, but in one of the great surprises of the movement get a horn solo in A-flat. This music sinks back to G major (V) at [9:38]
Then, the twilight moment of the work. The memorable tune of the second theme group is altered, varied, teased, and barely recognizable—yet it is there. It is music that holds its breath. The fast music returns [11:08] to close the movement, but meno mosso at first, taking time to regain its speed as if snapping from a daydream.