About this Recording
8.553004 - RACHMANINOV: Morceaux de salon / Three Nocturnes

Sergey Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
Three Nocturnes • Four Pieces • Morceaux de salon, Op 10


Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninov was among those Russian composers who chose exile rather than remain in Russia after then Revolution of 1917, through the consequent civil turmoil and, as it turned out, the years of despotic oppression that followed. He was born at Semyonovo in 1873 into a family of strong military tradition on his mother’s side and more remotely on his father’s. A tendency to extravagance had depleted his father’s fortunes, making it necessary to sell off much of their land and dissipating his wife’s dowry. As a result of this, the childhood of Rachmaninov was largely spent 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 this estate and move to St Petersburg, the expense of educating the boy for the Imperial service proved too great. Rachmaninov could make use, instead, of his musical gifts, entering St Petersburg Conservatory with a scholarship at the age of nine

Showing no particular industry as a student and lacking the attention he needed at home, in 1885 Rachmaninov failed all his general subject examinations at the Conservatory and there were threats that his scholarship would be withdrawn. His mother, now separated from her husband and responsible for her son’s welfare, arranged, on the advice of one of her relations, the well-known pianist Alexander Ziloti, that the boy should move to Moscow to study in Zverev, a teacher known to impose the strictest discipline. In Zverev’s house, however uncongenial the rigorous routine, Rachmaninov acquired much of his phenomenal ability 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 student Ziloti, a musician who had also studied with Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Rubinstein and, thereafter, with Liszt. Rachmaninov had lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Sergey Taneyev and Arensky, and 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 the 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 at its first performance in 1897, when it was conducted badly by Glazunov, apparently drunk at the time, and then reviewed in the cruellest terms by César Cui, who described it as student attempt to depict in music the seven plagues of Egypt. Rachmaninov busied himself as a conductor, accepting an engagement in this capacity with Mamontov’s Moscow Private Russian Opera Company. He was only able to return to composition 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, a work that has proved to be one of the most immediately popular of all he wrote.

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 was bringing 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. During the war, however depressing the circumstances, he continued his concert engagements, not being required for military service, as he had anticipated. All this was interrupted by 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, in consequence, 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 his Variations on a Theme of Corelli, his music was banned in Russia, after he had added his signature to a letter to the New York Times, drawing attention to the atrocities being committed by the then Russian government. The ban was withdrawn 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 Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 and his Third Symphony a year later. In 1939 he left Europe, to spend his final years in the United States.

The piano pieces included in the present recording were written, as were most of Rachmaninov’s works for solo piano, in the years in Russia before 1917. The Three Nocturnes were written in December 1887 and January 1888, when the composer was fourteen. The chief interest in the first of these must lie in Rachmaninov’s precocity. The romantic writing is inevitably lacking in maturity but full of suggestions as to what is to come. The second Nocturne, if again not particularly nocturnal in its approach, has an interesting chordal opening, leading to a promisingly romantic melody with appropriate accompanying textures. The third of the set continues to demonstrate Rachmaninov’s early grasp of pianistic style. The abruptly staccato chords of the opening are followed by a melody heard among ascending chords, with a cadenza-like passage and a shift to a brighter key as the piece reaches its conclusion.

The Four Pieces seem to have followed in 1888. The first, the Romance in F sharp minor, shows increased confidence in its piano writing and in its demands on a performer. The Prélude in FE flat minor is more memorable, its dramatic opening unfolding into immensely pianistic textures, dominated by a strongly romantic melody, emerging among repeated chords. The third piece, Mélodie in E major, is brighter in key and mood, darkening into a romantic minor key in contrast. The set ends with the Gavotte in D major, a very free interpretation of the dance, replete with the necessary elements of contrast and demands for pianistic display.

Rachmaninov completed his set of seven Morceaux de salon, Opus 10 early in 1894. Two years earlier he had completed his studies as a pianist at the Conservatory and in 1893 had graduated from the composition class. The first of the salon pieces, the Nocturne in A minor, is effective in its mood of melancholy, established in alternating chords. It is followed by a cheerful Valse in A major, with the lilt of Vienna. The third piece is a Barcarolle in G minor, dominated by its opening melody and shifting rippling harmonic accompaniment. The Mélodie in E minor was given its first performance, along with the three following pieces of the set, in Moscow in early 1894. It is notable chiefly for its melodic content, as its title suggests. The fifth piece, the Humoresque in G major, was revised in 1940, together with a number of other early piano pieces. Here there are detectable associations with the First Symphony and an element of caprice, suggested in the title. The set ends with the Romance in F minor and the Mazurka in D flat major, the former gently wistful in its relative simplicity and the latter vigorously assertive, with all the necessary emphasis of the Polish dance.

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