About this Recording
8.550349 - RACHMANINOV: Variations on a Theme of Corelli / Moments Musicaux, Op. 16

Sergey Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)

Piano Sonata No. 21n B Flat Minor, Op. 36
Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42
Moments Musicaux, Op. 16

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failed his general subject examinations at the Conservatory and there were threats that his scholarship would be withdrawn.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 C├ęsar 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 Beverly 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.

Rachmaninov wrote the first of his two piano sonatas in 1907. The Second Piano Sonata, Opus 36, was completed in its first version in 1913 during a summer spent at Ivanovka, while he worked also on the orchestration of his large scale choral work, The Bells, that he had started in Rome earlier in the year, intending it for performance in Sheffield, an event prevented by the outbreak of war. The sonata was revised and abridged in 1931, when the composer cut some 120 bars from the work and rewrote and simplified some passages. The sonata, in the key of B flat minor, offers a stormy first subject, and a gentler second in a dotted rhythm that had assumed importance in the Opus 32 Preludes. A brief linking passage introduces a central slow movement, integrated into the whole structure, and similarly linked to a final stormy Allegro molto in B flat major.

The Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Opus 42, were written in 1931 and make use of a well known theme that the seventeenth century violinist-composer Arcangelo Corelli had used as the basis of a set of variations in the twelfth of his solo violin sonatas. The melody, La folia, known in French as Les folies d'Espagne, was among the most popular tunes of the Baroque period, appearing variously as a dance, song or theme for instrumental variations, whether in The Beggar's Opera, in the work of Vivaldi, Handel or Bach. The melody makes an appearance in the work of Cherubini in Paris in the early nineteenth century and was used in 1863 by Liszt for his Rapsodie espagnole and by Carl Nielsen in 1906 in his opera Maskarade.

Rachmaninov, in his series of twenty variations on La folia, a forerunner of his later Paganini Variations, wrote the only solo piano work of his exile, a sign of a measure of restored confidence, after the relative failure of his Fourth Piano Concerto in 1926. The Paganini Rhapsody followed in 1934 and the Third Symphony in the years immediately following. The Corelli Variations are a masterly exploration of the possibilities of this simplest of original material. The work is conceived as a unity, with an Intermezzo, in fact a cadenza, before the fourteenth variation, and final rapid variations leading to a gentle coda. The Variations represent a new phase in Rachmaninov's interrupted career as a composer, where a tendency to greater clarity of texture is coupled with considerable harmonic originality and daring.

Rachmaninov wrote his six Moments Musicaux, Op. 16, between October and December 1896, at a time when he was preoccupied with the coming performance of his first symphony. These pieces, nevertheless, show the beginnings of the composer's style of piano-writing. The poignant opening Andantino in B flat minor is followed by an E flat minor Allegretto, characteristic of Rachmaninov in the romantic right-hand theme and the bravura of the intricate passage-work. The third piece is a meditative Andante cantabile in B minor, sombre music through which there is an occasional shaft of sunlight. This leads to a brilliant E minor Presto. The last two pieces of the set turn to major keys, with an optimistic D flat major Adagio sostenuto and a grandiose concluding C major Maestoso.

Idil Blret
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 Cortotand 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 Artistic Merit Award (1974) and was named Chevalier de I'Ordre du Merite in 1976.

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