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8.554426 - RACHMANINOV: Variations on a Theme of Chopin / Preludes

Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22;
Moment musical Op. 16, No. 2 (revised version 1940); Song without Words;
Canon in E minor; Fughetta in F major; Morceau de fantaisie in G minor;
Pièce in D minor; Fragments; Oriental Sketch; Prélude in F major; Prélude in D minor

The Russian composer and pianist Sergey Rachmaninov was born in 1873, the son of aristocratic parents. His father's improvidence, however, led to a change in the fortunes of the family when increasing debts necessitated the sale of one estate after another, followed by removal to an apartment in St Petersburg. It was there that Rachmaninov, at the age of nine, entered the Conservatory on a scholarship. The subsequent separation of his parents and his own failure in general subject examinations brought about his move to the Moscow Conservatory, where he was under the strict supervision of Nikolay Zverev, in whose house he lodged. In Moscow, as time went on, he won considerable success, both as a performer and as a composer, although it was at first on the second of these roles that he seemed likely to concentrate.

The Revolution of 1917 brought many changes. While some musicians remained in Russia, others chose temporary or permanent exile abroad. Rachmaninov took the latter course and thereafter found himself obliged to rely on his remarkable gifts as a pianist for the support of himself and his family, at the same time continuing his work as a conductor. Composition inevitably had to take second place and it was principally as a pianist, one of the greatest of his time, that he became known to audiences.

Rachmaninov's works for solo piano had been written principally in the years before the Revolution, with only the later addition of his Variations on a Theme of Corelli, in fact the well known La Follia theme, in 1931, when he revised the second of his two Piano Sonatas. His Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Opus 22 was written between August 1902 and February 1903 and first performed by the composer in Moscow in the latter month. The theme is that of the well known Prelude in C minor, Opus 28, No. 20. The solemn theme is heard first followed by 22 variations, the first offering a single melodic line, which is, in the second and third, further developed with contrapuntal embellishment. The work, which is in a continuous form, develops in volume and complexity, with a sixth variation with cross-rhythms and in a very characteristic romantic mood. Filigree textures mark the seventh and eighth variations, before the resolute determination of the ninth, further developed in the tenth variation. Remoter territory of greater serenity is explored in what follows, leading to a twelfth contrapuntal version and a chordal thirteenth. The mood of tranquillity is broken by more resolute elements in the fourteenth, with its solemnly descending chords, leading to the scherzo-like fifteenth and a gently wistful sixteenth. The following derivative of the theme offers weighty chords, before a more tender mood prevails. This is interrupted by the determined chords of the nineteenth variation, leading to a variation in rapidly running notes, a lyrical penultimate version of the material and the strongly marked rhythm as the work marches towards its conclusion in chords that at times suggest Schumann rather than Chopin, before a final Rachmaninov flourish.

The Moments musicaux, Opus 16 were written between October and December 1896. The second of the set was revised in February 1940. Nine years before, in 1931, Rachmaninov had reconstructed from memory his D minor Lento, known as Song without Words, originally written in 1886-87 as an exercise in the Conservatory class of Arensky. The Canon in E minor was presumably written for a similar purpose, perhaps to be dated a few years later. The Fughetta came in February 1899 at a period in the composer's life when composition had been difficult, if not impossible, after the failure of his First Symphony, although he was now able to relax after a successful season as conductor with the Mamontov Opera. The Morceau de fantaisie in G minor belongs to the same period of relative inactivity as a composer. In 1899 he was, in any case, preoccupied largely with a concert-tour to England as a pianist and conductor of his own work.

The Piece in D minor cannot be precisely dated but may be supposed to have been written during the composer's period at the Conservatory, although some have suggested an even earlier date.

The so-called Fragments and Oriental Sketch date from November 1917, a few weeks before Rachmaninov and his family finally left Russia. Fragments was first published in an American magazine in 1919, while the Oriental Sketch, distinguished by the energy of its motor rhythm, was first performed by the composer in 1931 and published in 1938. The Andante ma non troppo in D minor, published posthumously as Prélude, dates from the same period, one of some anxiety, in view of the political situation, from which Rachmaninov was saved by an invitation to give concerts in Stockholm. It is here preceded by his Prélude in F major, an early work, written in 1891 and later arranged for cello and piano. It was performed in this version in 1892 with Rachmaninov's friend, the cellist Anatoly Brandukov, for whom Tchaikovsky had written his Pezzo capriccioso.

Keith Anderson

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