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Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) had four years left to live, but when he performed on tour in the UK in 1939 he was looking so haggard that even the newspapers were writing about it. Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music pulls together several comments about the pianist’s declining health at this time, such as one paper calling him a “weary titan,” and Rachmaninoff himself admitting in an interview in the Northern Echo that he had been ill for five days straight and wasn’t entirely sure he would be well enough to travel to Middlesbrough, let alone perform.
Perform he did, however, and apparently after the concert he told friends he was back to normal health again. It was either a case of Rachmaninoff brushing off comments of concern, or it was an example of that miracle known as “the stage heals.” Many a performer has walked onto a stage feeling under the weather; many have come back off feeling quit chipper.
Of course there is that one last time it doesn’t work, and that moment would come upon Rachmaninoff at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville on Feb. 17, 1943. Having pushed himself farther than he could go, he had to cancel the rest of that tour and return home to Los Angeles where he would die five weeks later.
But back to the UK in 1939. In February and March of that year Rachmaninoff undertook a tour that saw him perform 12 concerts in 25 days. He opened on Feb. 16 in Birmingham and appears to have concluded in Cardiff on March 12. Other cities were London (Feb. 18), Liverpool (Feb. 19), Sheffield (Feb. 21), Southampton (Feb. 24), Middlesbrough (Feb. 28), Glasgow (Mar. 2), Edinburgh (Mar. 4), Oxford (Mar. 7), Manchester (Mar. 9), London (Mar. 11). Scott Davie’s wonderful Rachmaninoff site lists the Cardiff show on the 12th, although I have seen comments elsewhere stating that the March 11 London performance at the old Queen’s Hall (destroyed two years later during the bombing of London) was the last of the UK concerts for that tour – and his last ever performances in the UK. It is after the London show – where his performances included Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and some of his own works – that Rachmaninoff would be taken to the Sydney Savage Club in the heart of London at One Whitehall Place, which you see pictured here from several angles. Fortunately, a monster delivery truck parked smack dab in front of the entrance for the entire time I was shooting, finally left after I decided to leave, so I ran back and got a few of the straight-on shots that you see here.
On the evening he spent at the Savage Club, Rachmaninoff came as the guest of his good friend, Odessa-born pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch. The Evening News reported the event as follows: “After his concert at Queen’s Hall on Saturday afternoon he was taken to the Savage Club, where, to his surprise, they made him an honorary member. A musician friend of mine who was a guest tells me it was amusing to see the great pianist’s reaction to the carefree abandon of the gathering.” Even today the Savage Club’s website still lists Rachmaninoff as an honorary member, along with Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Dickens, Dylan Thomas and others. Thanks to Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leda, the authors of A Lifetime in Music, we know it was Moiseiwitsch that brought Rachmaninoff to the club because they inserted that information in brackets in the middle of the Evening News report.
Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963) can now occasionally be found in “forgotten pianist” lists, although that seems awfully harsh. He was a deep admirer of Rachmaninoff, who was also a Moiseiwitsch fan, the former calling the latter his “spiritual heir.” As for Moiseiwitsch’s performances of Rachmaninoff’s works, here is what Grammophone wrote in a review of The Moiseiwitsch-Rachmaninov Recordings, 1937-43: “No pianist other than the composer himself has been more intimately associated with Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and Paganini Rhapsody than Moiseiwitsch. And, as a corollary, no other pianist has played either work with such a feline ease and sensitivity.” Fortunately for us, Abram Chasins, a U.S. composer, pianist, author, and radio executive, did a radio interview with Moiseiwitsch in 1950 that we can still listen to on YouTube.
There Moiseiwitsch sheepishly tells of his first meeting with Rachmaninoff following his own piano recital at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1919. He had actually attended Rachmaninoff’s performance a week earlier but was too embarrassed to approach the great man. Rachmaninoff had no such qualms and came backstage with a friend to introduce himself after the Moiseiwitsch recital. Benno opines that it was his performance of three or four of Rachmaninoff’s preludes that was the “link that started our friendship.”
“When I last saw him it was the year when the war broke out and he was in London in March, and he told me he was coming back in September to play his First Concerto for the first time. So although I studied it – they wanted me to play – I said I would not play, because I want Rachmaninoff to give the first performance. So we waited, and, of course, Rachmaninoff went back to America and [there] was no likelihood of his coming to play in England. So I was the first to play this work, in the new version at any rate.”
Later in the interview – which is definitely worth listening to in full – Moiseiwitsch tells more about the last time he saw Rachmaninoff in his hotel room – I’m guessing this would have been a day or two after the visit to the Savage Club. The two gossiped about numerous of their pianist colleagues, praising each for something, but damning each for something else. As Moiseiwitsch was leaving the room, Rachmaninoff said, “Thank you!”
“No, thank you,” said the younger of the two men.
But Rachmaninoff continued, “No, I want to thank you because you killed everybody except me!”
To which Moiseiwitsch, clearly more emboldened than at their first meeting 20 years before, shot back, “Wait a moment, next week I’m lunching with [Josef] Hofmann. Then we’ll kill you! So the last I saw of him was mouth wide opened, roaring with silent laughter.”
I would like to acknowledge Natalia Dissanayake’s wonderful book Russian Fates in London (Russkie sud’by v Londone, London, NED, 2016), where I first ran across reference to Rachmaninoff’s visit to the Savage Club on pg. 243. Thanks also to Larissa Itina, who let me run off with her only copy of the book. I’ll have reason to refer to it again in the future.