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8.550347 - RACHMANINOV: Etudes-Tableaux, Opp. 33 and 39

Sergey Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)

Etudes-tableaux, Op. 33 Etudes-tableaux, Op. 39

Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninov was born at Semyonovo in 1873. His family, one of strong military traditions on both his father's and mother's side, was well-to-do, but the extravagance of his father made it necessary to sell off much of their land. Rachmaninov's childhood was spent largely at the one remaining family estate at Oneg, near Novgorod. The reduction in family circumstances had at least one happier result. When it became necessary to sell the estate at Oneg and to move to St. Petersburg, the expense of education for the Imperial service proved too great. Rachmaninov could make use, instead, of his musical gifts, entering St. Petersburg Conservatory at the age of nine as a scholarship student.

Not a particularly industrious student and lacking the attention that he needed at home, in 1885 Rachmaninov failed his general subject examinations at the Conservatory and there were threats that his scholarship would be withdrawn. His mother, now separated from his father and responsible for the boy's welfare, arranged that he should move to Moscow to study with Zverev, a teacher of known strictness. In Zverev's house, however uncongenial the strict routine, he acquired much of his phenomenal technique as a pianist, while broadening his musical understanding by attending concerts in the city .At the age of fifteen he became a pupil of Zverev's former pupil Ziloti at the Conservatory, studying counterpoint and harmony with Sergey Taneyev and Arensky. His growing interest in composition led to a quarrel with Zverev and removal to the house of his relations, the Satins.

In 1891 Rachmaninov completed his piano studies at the Conservatory and the composition of his first piano concerto. The following year he graduated from the composition class and composed his notorious prelude in C sharp minor, a piece that was to haunt him by its excessive popularity. His early career brought initial success as a composer, halted by the failure of his first symphony, conducted badly by Glazunov, apparently drunk at the time, and reviewed in the cruellest terms by César Cui who described it as a student attempt to depict in music the seven plagues of Egypt. Rachmaninov busied himself as a conductor, signing a contract with the Mamontov opera company. As a composer, however, he suffered from the poor reception of his symphony and was only enabled to continue after a course of treatment with Dr. Nikolay Dahl, a believer in the efficacy of hypnotism. The immediate result was the second of his four piano concertos.

The years before the Russian revolution brought continued successful activity as a composer and as a conductor. In 1902 Rachmaninov married Natalya Satina and went on to pursue a career, that brought him increasing international fame. There were journeys abroad and a busy professional life, from which summer holidays at the estate of Ivanovka, which he finally acquired from the Satins in 1910, provided respite. All this was interrupted with the abdication of the Tsar in 1917 and the beginning of the revolution.

Rachmaninov left Russia in 1917. From then until his death in Beverley Hills in 1943, he was obliged to rely largely on performance for a living. Now there was very much less time for composition, as he undertook demanding concert tours, during which he dazzled audiences in Europe and America with his remarkable powers as a pianist. His house at Ivanovka was destroyed in the Russian civil war, and in 1931, the year of the Corelli Variations, his music was banned in Russia, to be permitted once more two years later. He spent much time in America, where there were lucrative concert tours, but established a music publishing house in Paris and built for himself a villa near Lucerne, where he completed his Paganini Rhapsody in 1934 and his Third Symphony a year later. In 1939 he left Europe to spend his final years in the United States.

The first group of Etudes-tableaux, Opus 33, was written in the summer of 1911. It originally consisted of nine pieces, the fourth of which was withdrawn and revised to become the sixth of the later set of Etudes-tableaux, Opus 39.

The third and fifth were published posthumously, so that the first published set contained only six pieces. Of these all but two are in minor keys. The first, in F minor, proceeds in solemn march rhythm, suggesting, in its conclusion, a mere hint of Rachmaninov's recurrent idée fixe, the opening notes of the Dies irae of the Latin Requiem Mass. The C major second Etude soon touches on the more melancholy minor, as it unfolds, leading to a third, in an initial C minor, that later provided material for the Fourth Piano Concerto. Opus 33 No.5, fourth Etude-tableau of the later published Opus 33, refers in its opening to the first of Rachmaninov's two piano sonatas, and is based largely on a figure harmonically associated with the French horn. The fifth of the series is in E flat minor, the stillness of its conclusion interrupted by the strong opening of the sixth, in E flat major. The melancholy G minor of the seventh of the group leads to a final C sharp minor Etude, in a key and with an opening figure that suggest the well known Prelude in the same key.

The Etudes-tableaux published as Opus 39 were written in 1916 and 1917 and make very much greater demands on the performer. Only the last of the nine Etudes is in a major key. The first of the group, in C minor, demands immediate virtuosity and is followed by a dramatic A minor Etude that again has suggestions of the Dies irae. Its gently poetic conclusion leads to a fierce F sharp minor burst of activity. The energetic fourth Etude, in B minor, leads to a passionate E flat minor and a dramatic A minor Etude, revised from its original version in the first set of studies. The poignantly tragic C minor seventh Etude is succeeded by the eighth, in D minor, while the whole series ends with the strongly marked rhythms of the D major conclusion of the ninth of the studies. The title Etudes-tableaux suggests, of course, some pictorial or extra-musical inspiration. Rachmaninov, well enough known in later life for a certain taciturnity, seems not to have divulged their origin.

Idil Biret
Born in Ankara, Idil Biret began piano lessons at the age of three. She displayed an outstanding gift for music and graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with three first prizes when she was fifteen. She studied piano with Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, and composition with Nadia Boulanger.

Since the age of sixteen Idil Biret has performed in concerts around the world playing with major orchestras under the direction of conductors such as Monteux, Boult, Kempe, Sargent, de Burgos, Pritchard, Groves and Mackerras. She has participated in the festivals of Montreal, Persepolis, Royan, La Rochelle, Athens, Berlin, Gstaad and Istanbul. She was also invited to perform at the 85th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Backhaus and at the 90th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Kempff.

Idil Biret received the Lily Boulanger Memorial Fund award (1954/1964), the Harriet Cohen/Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal (1959) and the Polish Artistical Merit Award (1974) and was named Chevalier de l'Ordre du Merite in 1976.

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