45 years ago my English-born grandfather---a gifted, classically trained pianist and music critic in Ottawa Canada---introduced me to what he claimed was "the best recording of the best piano performance" he'd ever heard. I can still see that black vinyl record with its gray 'Columbia Masterworks' label turning on my grandfather's record player---as I, with goose bumps, listened for the first time to Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. A young French pianist, Philippe Entremont was performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy.
One year ago(February/02) I received from Amazon.com a new copy of the Sony CD remix (but with a different cover) of this, my all-time favorite classical music recording. And once again I was 'transported' by the same beauty that so overwhelmed me as a young boy, this time shaken with tears of joy, and saying aloud to myself: "What a composition! What a performance! What a recording!"
I was interested to learn that the re-mix for CD by engineer Chris Herles involved producer Howard H. Scott who was producer of the original recording February 1, 1958 at Philadelphia's Broadwood Hotel. Only the inadequate liner notes (so typical of today's "budget" recordings) reflect the amazingly low price of this CD which offers improved sound over the original, vinyl Columbia record. (Seems to me grandfather was always praising English and German classical recordings, and was underwhelmed by Columbia's "Masterworks.") But this CD version from Sony is a treat for the ears.
According to the original liner notes (not included with the CD) Rachmaninoff composed the "Rhapsody" during a 41-day period in 1934; it received its debut with the great pianist himself as soloist less than three months later (November 7) with the Philadelphia Orchestra, under the baton of Leopold Stokowski.
The meager liner notes for the CD have nothing to say about the featured pianist. The original album noted that Entremont was wildly acclaimed at London's Festival Hall (a month later March 9, 1958) with a reviewer for the London Daily Telegraph declaring "the young French pianist . . . is nothing less than a genius." The ever-conservative London Times summed up this performance succinctly: "In Rachmaninoff's Paganini Rhapsody his sparkling fingerwork and his wonderfully evocative tone coloring and phrasing completely transformed the work from the mere finger-exercise-ground we often hear into the subtle and seductive spell of the kind that Paganini himself would lay upon his listeners."
Coincidentally on the same day last year I obtained, from another source listed at Amazon.com, a different recording of the same work, featuring Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. It is a wonderful recording, beautifully played. But the Entremont/Ormandy/Philadelphia is the definitive version for a couple of reasons: Entremont when he was young was not only the fleetest-fingered pianist imaginable, but his shading, his ability to modulate his volume with feeling at breathtaking speed, has never been equaled. Beyond that, there is what could only be described as an 'organic' integration of piano and orchestra into some great, supremely coordinated, unified 'creature'---which makes this the unsurpassed performance of a lifetime.
Grandpa, if you're looking down (and may we assume the music is even better up there?) your opinion of 45 years ago still holds true down here.