Nikolai Sokoloff and The Cleveland Orchestra – Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 in E Minor Op. 27

Nikolai Sokoloff
Nikolai Sokoloff

In May 1928 the Cleveland Orchestra and Music Director Nikolai Sokoloff undertook a momentous recording project: Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor, its gramophone debut. Running to 46 minutes and occupying 12 78-rpm sides, it was a daring venture by the New York-based Brunswick label. Initially retailing for $12, the label was forced to slash the price some months later. Whether or not Brunswick recouped its investment, the recording was an artistic success and an extraordinary contribution to music at the time. It can now be heard again in a splendid new transfer by Mark Obert-Thorn on Pristine Classical.

In a future issue, the life of Nikolai Sokoloff will be explored in greater depth. Here will focus on his remarkable and path-finding recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, with the great Cleveland Orchestra.

Had the recording been made by Columbia, it likely would have been re-issued at some point, possibly in the label’s Entré series. As it was, it languished until 1993 when the Cleveland Orchestra, in celebration of its 75th Anniversary, released it as part of a 10CD box set TCO93-75, with expert transfers by Ward Marston. But that was nearly 30 years ago and the beautiful anniversary set has been long out- of-print. Luckily, Pristine Classical has restored this important recording to the catalog. Here is its backstory. 

Pristine Classical
Pristine Classical PASC524. Nikolai Sokoloff and the Cleveland Orchestra – Complete Recordings (1924- 1928) – to purchase, click here. Note: Pristine Classical has generously made the entire first movement of the Rachmaninoff Second freely available to audition.

Although he did not conduct the work on record, Rachmaninoff did lead the symphony’s premiere in St. Petersburg on February 8, 1908 – almost a year to the day he had completed the score’s initial draft in Germany. Conductor of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, Rachmaninoff’s professional demands left little time for composition, his first passion and best destiny. Seeking peaceful obscurity amidst musically rich Dresden (just a two-hour train ride from Leipzig’s Gewandhaus and the conductor he most admired ‘The Magician’ Artur Nikisch, Rachmaninoff the composer came to the fore, writing not only his Russian Songs Op. 6 and the still underrated Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor Op. 28, but also following a 10-year interval, his first purely orchestra works, the powerfully atmospheric Isle of the Dead Op. 29, and his symphony in E minor, begun in October 1906 and completed in short score on New Year’s Day 1907. It would prove a resounding success. 

A vast canvas in Russian oils as only Rachmaninoff could have conceived (and executed), the Symphony No. 2 runs some 65 minutes without cuts, an option often sanctioned by the composer not only in this work, but in several others as well – the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor Op. 36 and the Corelli Variations Op. 42, among others. In 1919, while vacationing in San Francisco, Rachmaninoff was approached by Nikolai Sokoloff, also on holiday, and planning to program the E minor Symphony in Cleveland’s forthcoming season. Despite his enthusiasm for the work, Sokoloff had reservations regarding its length, concerns that Rachmaninoff accepted with generous equanimity (he, too, knew the conductor’s trade): “You know, I was much younger and more voluble when I wrote that symphony. I believe we can revise it and make it shorter.” 

In his unpublished memoirs (Reminiscences), Sokoloff recalled: “…fortunately, I had seen Rachmaninoff the summer before and, when I told him we were going to record his Second Symphony, he immediately said that he would like to make some cuts in it about which he had been thinking seriously for some time as the symphony was far too long. Also, that he wanted to make a change in the orchestration at the end of the slow movement and give me the exact tempo he wished in the Scherzo, which had been given an incorrect metronome mark when the score was published. Rachmaninoff’s revisions and cuts are all recorded in my score, which I left with the Cleveland Orchestra. I feel sure the present librarian would be gracious enough to allow any conductor, wishing to know Rachmaninoff’s own final revisions, to look at it.” [It is still present in the Cleveland Orchestra Music Library.] In the notes for the Pristine Classical release, producer Mark Obert-Thorn writes:

“Not only did the composer cut music he considered redundant, but he also changed some harmonies and assigned a new tempo marking for the second movement. The 1928 set presented here is the only recording of this version. The next recording, made by Eugene Ormandy in Minneapolis in 1934, cut even more out of the score, and became the de facto performing version in the US and elsewhere until the 1960s.” 

25-year-old Nikolai Sokoloff
25-year-old Nikolai Sokoloff, Concertmaster of Modest Altschuler’s Russian Symphony Orchestra, who would give the American premiere of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony in 1907. The photo is inscribed to the American journalist, theater critic, arts promoter and historian J. Willis Sayre (1877-1963).

In the great Cleveland tradition, Nikolai Sokoloff was a master orchestra builder, the orchestra’s first, in fact. One of 7 children, he was born on 28 May 1886 in Kiev to a prominent musical family. His first teacher was his father Gregori (1856-1923), himself a fine violinist and conductor of the city’s orchestra – by age 12, Nikolai had joined their ranks. However, in 1900, Gregori and his wife Katherine (1862-1926) moved the family to New Haven, Connecticut in 1900. The following year, 15-year-old Nikolai won a scholarship to attend the Yale Music School. In 1903 he was the finalist in a competition to fill a first violin section vacancy with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and for four years he not only played there under Music Director Wilhelm Gericke, but also further broadened his musical education as a pupil of composer Charles Martin Loeffler, whose works he would champion throughout his musical career. 

Venturing abroad in 1907, Sokoloff studied in France with both Vincent d’Indy and Eugène Ysaÿe and concertized widely. Returning to the United States in September 1910 he was hired the following month as Concertmaster of the Russian Symphony Orchestra, which had been formed in 1904 by Modest Altschuler (1873- 1963), a student in Moscow of Taneyev and Arensky. Significantly, Altschuler had given the American premiere of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 on 14 January 1909 at Carnegie Hall, and when he reprised the work there on 17 November 1910, Sokoloff was at the First Desk. Little less than a month later – 15 December 1910 – Sokoloff gave a recital at Mendelssohn Hall, playing Violin Sonatas by Lekeu and Grieg (No. 2), as well as paraphrases by the composers Paula Szalit and Henry Ketten. 

After five seasons, the still young Sokoloff went West, and in February 1916 was chosen to be Conductor of the musician-organized San Francisco People’s Philharmonic Orchestra, where – at his insistence – female players were also engaged, and at the same pay. Their inaugural concert was given on 11 March 1916 at the Dreamland Rink (a multi-purpose pavilion that also hosted roller-skating and prize-fighting boxing matches). Sokoloff also led the Innisfail String Quartet, created by Mrs. Cecilia Masserly, a wealthy patron of the arts (at one time Yehudi Menuhin took lessons in her home with Louis Persinger). She bestowed the name “Innisfail” on the Quartet in tribute to her father, an Irishman, who used this Celtic term of endearment for things he loved; a poetical name for Ireland, it is also said to mean “beautiful isle of destiny”. Their repertoire included, among other works, Ravel’s String Quartet, Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2, Debussy’s Quartet in G minor, Franck’s Quartet in D Major and quartets by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bridge, et al. 

When World War I broke out, Sokoloff left all behind, and seeking to do his part, shipped off to war-torn France. Making his way to the front, he organized the “American Friends of Musicians” and led concerts for the Dough Boys. Returning to the United States in 1918, his burgeoning career began to gather full steam. On 17 May 1918 he made his New York conducting debut at Carnegie Hall, leading his San Francisco orchestra in all-French program. He then fulfilled engagements with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s summer concert series. This led to an offer by the Cleveland Musical Arts Association, founded by Adella Prentiss Hughes (1869-1950), to create an orchestra post haste. 

The Cleveland Orchestra and Conductor Nikolai Sokoloff in February 1922 at New York’s 5,000-seat Hippodrome Theater, located on 6th Avenue between West 43rd and West 44th Streets. The building was demolished in 1939.
The Cleveland Orchestra and Conductor Nikolai Sokoloff in February 1922 at New York’s 5,000-seat Hippodrome Theater, located on 6th Avenue between West 43rd and West 44th Streets. The building was demolished in 1939.

Notable performances of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony by Sokoloff & the Cleveland Orchestra

  • 13 March 1920 – Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, OH
  • 7 February 1921 – Carnegie Music Hall, Pittsburgh, PA
  • 8 February 1921 – National Theater, Washington, DC
  • 10 February 1921 – Symphony Hall, Boston, MA
  • 23 January 1923 – Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
  • 9 December 1927 – Syria Mosque, Pittsburgh, PA
  • 11 February 1928 – Teatro Payret, Havana, Cuba
  • 13 February 1928 – Paramount Theater, Palm Beach, FL
  • 24 November 1932 – Severance Hall, Cleveland, OH

Sokoloff accepted and proceed to assemble 55 players for 7 rehearsals, followed by 3 symphony concerts, 4 “pops”, 13 “specials” and 7 on the road. The very first given on 11 December 1918 at Grays Armory. By the end of his tenure, Sokoloff’s Cleveland band was the last, but not the least of the “Big 5” and a force to be reckoned with. Sokoloff would stay at the River City through the 1933 season and appeared in one of its happiest moments, the 1931 opening of Severance Hall. Indeed, Sokoloff’s contributions to the orchestra’s future were manifold – under his leadership, it toured widely, annually in the Midwest, and with additional sojourns to Canada and Cuba. Educational concerts became a staple of the city’s musical life and continue to this day. The Cleveland Orchestra was among the first to broadcast regularly and its first recordings, for the Brunswick label, were made under Sokoloff’s direction. 

If not a progressive programmer, he could still lay claim to being a contemporary and intrepid one, playing the music of Bloch, Chadwick, Converse, Hanson, Herbert, MacDowell, Moore, Loeffler, Sowerby, Taylor, et al. The Clevelanders had ‘their’ Rachmaninoff Second under their belt for 8 years (first performing it on 13 March 1920) when the wax masters were made for Brunswick in May 1928. In fact, during his tenure, Sokoloff and the Clevelanders presented the work, in whole or part, nearly seventy times (see inset on the previous page). Their Brunswick recording preserves a passionate performance, imbued with a missionary zeal and a yearning Russian melancholy. Although it would ultimately be surpassed, Nikolai Sokoloff and the Cleveland Orchestra’s 1928 Brunswick recording remains a landmark entry in the Rachmaninoff discography and, still to this day, a fascinating and exhilarating musical experience. 

Sokoloff’s contract was not renewed after the 1931-32 season, but the next chapters of his life were no less interesting. And though he never again enjoyed the same renown as during his tenure as Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra, in some ways his energy and talents arguably made a greater impact on musical America in the years thereafter. This will be explored in a future issue. Nikolai Sokoloff died in La Jolla, California on 25 September 1969. He was 79 years old. 

See more in the Spring 2022 Issue (available in your subscriber account).