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8.220093 - RACHMANINOV: Piano Transcriptions (Complete)

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
The Complete Transcriptions


Sergei Vassilievitch Rachmaninov was born in the district of Novgorod in 1873, the son of an aristocratic family. A change in the family fortunes enabled him to enter the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the age of nine, studying chiefly the piano. In 185 he moved to the Conservatory in Moscow, at which Tchaikovsky had taught, and there he took piano lessons from Zverev, and later with Liszt’s pupil Alexander Siloti, the pianist responsible for advising Tchaikovsky on the revision of his famous Piano Concerto in B flat minor, and perhaps for the energetic opening of that work. In Moscow Rachmaninov also studied theory and composition, his teachers including the distinguished contrapuntalist Taneyev, and Arensky. At the same time the influence of Tchaikovsky, then at the height of his powers, remained considerable. As a composer himself, Rachmaninov continued in the peculiarly Russian cosmopolitan vein of late romanticism. In 1892 Rachmaninov won a Gold Medal for composition, and in the same year toured Russia as a concert pianist, before assuming the position of professor of piano at the Moscow Maryinsky Institute for Girls. His later years brought him continued success as a pianist of phenomenal powers. At the same time he was to appear at home and abroad as a conductor, while his compositions attracted attention. His first two piano concertos were extremely popular, and have remained so, while his final year as a student brought the notorious Prelude in C sharp minor, the fame of which was to cause the composer considerable embarrassment.

After the Revolution of 1917 Rachmaninov remained abroad, moving first to Paris, and later dividing his time between the U.S.A. and Switzerland. Much of his work as a composer came before 1917, since the later part of his life had to be devoted more largely to a successful career as one of the world’s most distinguished pianists. He died in California in 1943.


The art of transcriptions is an old one. Early in the history of keyboard-playing performers had improvised freely on given themes, or popular melodies, and this was a regular part of public performance, a feat that aroused much interest. The nineteenth century saw not only the technical development of the piano as a concert instrument, but the parallel development of the virtuoso pianist, capable of unimagined triumphs of skill. It was Liszt who, above all, devoted attention to the art of transcription for the piano, re-creating a great variety of music, envisaged in terms of the keyboard. It is this tradition that Rachmaninov follows, re-writing, expanding and embellishing to create true piano music for his own performance.

J.S. Bach: Preludio, Gavotte and Gigue

Johann Sebastian Bach, the earliest of the original composers here transcribed by Rachmaninov, wrote six works for unaccompanied violin, and these have been seen by later composers as something of a challenge to the transcriber.

Some have supplied keyboard accompaniments to the original violin parts, a task attempted by Schumann and Kreisler, while others have made keyboard transcriptions, the first of these, for organ, by Bach himself. The E major Partita, three movements of which have been transcribed by Rachmaninov, offers a typical opportunity by its harmonic implications and alternative, inevitably omitted y a solo string instrument.

The Preludio on any instrument would be a tour de force, while the Gavotte en rondeau, by its relative simplicity, is one of the most loved of all. The Gigue concludes the original suite.

Fritz Kreisler: Liebeslied

To transcribe a work of Fritz Kreisler is a case of the transcriber transcribed, since the Austrian violinist was an adept at the art, although some of his transcriptions were, in fact, original compositions, as was later revealed.

The celebration of the joys and sorrows of love, described as old Viennese dances, seems to be original Kreisler. Rachmaninov, however, with the possibilities of the piano in front of him, makes of both compositions works of much greater complexity, demanding more of the player than Kreisler had done of the violinist. The first of the two, in particular, is much extended.

Georges Bizet: Minuet from “L’ Arlesienne”

Bizet’s music for Alphonse Daudet’s play L’ Arlesienne was written in 1872, and gave rise to two orchestral suites, the first by the composer. In Rachmaninov’s transcription the relatively simple dance is expanded considerably.

Sergei Rachmaninov: Daisies

Daisies is taken from a set of six songs completed in 1916, with words by Igor Severyanin. The piece inevitably reminds us of Chopin, in its hint of melancholy, and in its figuration.

Sergei Rachmaninov: Polka

Rahcmaninov’s Polka, faithful enough to the outline of the dance, but an elaborately virtuoso work in itself, is dedicated to Leopold Godowsky, the great Polish pianist, who was himself a master of transcription, in the tradition of Liszt.

Modest Mussorgsky: Gopak

The Gopak is a lively Russian dance. The well-known example by Mussorgsky comes from his uncompleted opera Sorochintsy Fair, based on a work by the writer Gogol. The Gopak itself was first arranged by Liadov, but has later appeared in many arrangements.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Scherzo (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

The composer Mendelssohn excelled particularly in the feather-lightness of his own kind of scherzo, of which the example from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a good one, commissioned by the King of Prussia and completed in 1842.

Rachmaninov’s version recaptures the delicacy of the original, adding the later romantic decoration of which he is so fond.

Franz Schubert: Wohin

Schubert, famous above all for his large number of songs, the great flowering of early German romanticism, set a group of poems by Wilhelm Müller, dealing with the love of a boy for the beautiful daughter of the miller, his master. The second song of the cycle asks where the rippling brook is leading, the sound of the water reflected in Schubert’s original accompaniment, and here, too, in Rachmaninov’s more elaborate version.

Sergei Rachmaninov: Lilacs

In Lilacs Rachmaninov transcribed his own song, a setting, composed in 1902, of a poem by Beketova, here treated with all the elaboration of Chopin.

Peter Ilyi’ch Tchaikovsky: Lullaby

In 1872 Tchaikovsky completed a set of six songs by various writers. The first of these was a Lullaby, with words by Maikov. Rachmaninov’s transcription makes of the song a much more impressive technical display, retaining the essential simplicity of the original theme.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Flight of the Bumble Bee

The Flight of the Bumble Bee is from the opera The Story of Tsar Saltan, by Rimsky-Korsakov, in which Tsar Saltan’s son, Guidon, is turned into a bee, and is thus enabled to plague his wicked aunts, who had tried to contrive his death. The text of the opera is based on Pushkin, while the present excerpt has undergone frequent arrangement for different instruments, to each of which it offers a technical challenge.

Keith Anderson

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