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8.571289 - RACHMANINOV, S.: Moments musicaux / Variations on a Theme of Corell / Preludes (Biret Archive Edition, Vol. 12)
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
“I have never quite known which was my true vocation: composer, pianist or conductor. At times I think I should only ever have been a composer, then I tell myself I am nothing other than a pianist. Now that the greater part of my life is behind me, I am tortured by the thought that by spreading my efforts in so many different directions I have failed to find my true path…” So declared Rachmaninov towards the end of his life.
He does appear to have given equal weight to two rôles in his life—those of creator and performer. As a virtuoso pianist, he was always a creator too, even when playing music written by others, given how much of his own personality he brought to his performances and the extent to which he would rethink and re-create a work. Marietta Shaginyan, who knew Rachmaninov very well and to whom we owe the best reminiscences of him to have been published, recalled that he was the most brilliant virtuoso of his day, a musician quite unsurpassed in the art of interpretation, and that there was something satanic about his playing: “When he was at the piano, he could convince you of anything. He could convince you that one of his trifles…had no equal in the whole of musical literature—so strong, so categorical was his power over his listener.” She added, “Once he sat down at the piano he created the piece and delivered it to his listener. He would burn himself out performing and then, white, looking like a squeezed lemon, exhausted from the work, he would lie half dead during the intermission.”¹
In fact, as well as being highly dedicated to his craft (he spent up to eight hours a day practising), Rachmaninov was blessed with exceptional instinct, astonishing virtuosity and the hands of a born pianist: he could effortlessly span a tenth, and could even reach a twelfth, without arpeggiating! And that natural virtuosity was ever-present in the mind of Rachmaninov the composer, whose writing is as deliberately difficult and idiomatically pianistic as that of Liszt.
As for Rachmaninov’s inspiration, well, if we are to love it and accurately contextualise it, there are two elements we have to bear in mind. Firstly, his desire for and belief in “pure” music (Russian, and therefore essentially melodic music) and his conscious refusal to “overstep the permissible limits” and launch into overly experimental “adventures in sound”, whose value he saw as questionable. Secondly, the fact that Rachmaninov, a great admirer of Tchaikovsky, thought of music as “the sister of poetry and daughter of sadness” and that his own work reveals a lyricism stemming from a mal de siècle similar to Chekhov’s, the kind of lyricism exalted in the final lines of Uncle Vanya, reflecting a nostalgia for the irreversible, for things that have gently faded away, never to return.
This is particularly striking in the six Moments musicaux, written in 1896 when the composer was just twenty-three years old. Despite the title, there is no link with the works of the same name by Schubert: these are pleasingly lyrical pieces, with no clearly defined aim or obvious pretext, but with a certain formality and a sense of discreet, unrefined emotion.
The Variations on a theme of Corelli were written much later, in 1931, and were dedicated to Rachmaninov’s great friend (and musical partner) Fritz Kreisler. The theme is the celebrated La folia melody used in the last of the twelve sonatas for violin and basso continuo that make up Corelli’s Opus 5 of 1700. (The folia was a sixteenth-century Portuguese dance, transplanted to Spain, where it took on some of the characteristics of the chaconne and passacaglia.) The initial presentation of the theme (a tune which also inspired Frescobaldi, Vivaldi, JS Bach, Cherubini and Liszt) is followed by twenty variations which offer Rachmaninov the opportunity to display his immense talent and incredible inventiveness in terms of technique, pianistic idiom and colour. Thus, major developments unfold from thematic cells, even from simple intervals; the play of counterpoint is dazzling; and, finally, there are endless changes of “mood” or “colour”, from the improvisatory cadenza-like Intermezzo, to galloping rhythms and gypsy accents!
¹ As quoted in Rachmaninoff by Victor I. Seroff (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1950, p.54) (The booklet note is from the original LP, DECCA 7.143, released in France in 1972)
Preludes, Op. 32: Nos. 1, 5, 12
The first set of Preludes, published in 1903 as Op. 23, begins a series that, with the thirteen Preludes of the later Op. 32, completed in 1910, makes use of all major and minor keys with the exception of C sharp minor, already claimed by the Op. 10 Prelude in that key. The procession of keys, however, alternating minor and major, lacks the logic of Chopin’s similar work. The thirteen Preludes of Op.32 open in a dramatic C major. To this the fifth Prelude, in G major, offers a contrast in limpid textures. The twelfth Prelude, in G sharp minor, is similar in mood and textures, its tenor melody accompanied by filigree figuration.
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