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8.573468 - RACHMANINOV, S.: Rare Piano Transcriptions (Severus)
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Sergey Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
Rare Piano Transcriptions


One of the most accomplished and celebrated pianists of his time, Rachmaninov is the only musician since Liszt to have excelled equally as a composer and a conductor. Born on 1st April 1873 in the Novgorod region into an impoverished noble family from musical and military backgrounds, Rachmaninov received early piano lessons from his mother and pianist Anna Ornatskaya before entering St Petersburg Conservatory at the age of nine. From the age of twelve to fifteen, he trained with the renowned Moscow teacher Nikolai Zverev, subsequently entering the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied piano with his cousin (and pupil of Liszt) Alexander Siloti, composition with Sergey Taneyev and Anton Arensky, and conducting. Graduating with a Gold Medal at the age of nineteen, he found a mentor in Tchaikovsky who recommended his first opera Aleko to the Bolshoi Theatre where it was given its première with remarkable success. Apart from three early years as a conductor at the Mamontov Opera and the Bolshoi Theatre, Rachmaninov deliberately chose to work as a freelance artist throughout his life. Although he composed over a period of fifty years, he created the majority of his works prior to his emigration in 1917.

From 1917 onwards Rachmaninov toured the world as a pianist, resuming composing only in 1926. Having settled in his villa Senar at Lake Lucerne in Switzerland in 1930, he discovered an atmosphere akin to that of his Russian estate Ivanovka. He emigrated again, however, in 1939, taking refuge in America. On 28th March 1943, six weeks after his last recital, he died of cancer.

Rachmaninov’s works span almost every genre, with three symphonies, three symphonic poems, three operas, five piano concertos, six major choral works, extended solo and duo piano works, and eighty songs and chamber music pieces. Gifted with a phenomenal memory, Rachmaninov could memorise a symphony in a single hearing and play it perfectly on the piano afterwards. Notwithstanding his celebrity, he led a secluded life surrounded by his Russian family, friends and colleagues. His extended correspondence testifies to his sensibility, generosity and warm-heartedness, his sense of humour and irony.

The French term romance describes the Russian lyrical art song, developed in the first half of the nineteenth century by its founding fathers Alexander Alabiev and Alexander Varlamov. Influenced by Italian opera, it soon found a unique Russian expression and reached its culmination in the songs of Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.

With their seductive and distinctive melodies, Rachmaninov’s romances rival his piano works in terms of their popularity. The early influence of Russian Orthodox choral singing and gypsy songs contributed to Rachmaninov’s profound attachment to lyrical art, not only as a composer but as an outstanding accompanist and operatic conductor. Feodor Chaliapin was one of his closest friends.

Since Liszt, piano transcriptions had become increasingly fashionable and an art form in their own right. Rachmaninov wrote at least twenty transcriptions for piano of his own and other composers’ works. Transcription playing being part of their curriculum, Rachmaninov and his fellow students at the Moscow Conservatory performed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by heart in an arrangement for two pianos, eight hands. Transcriptions also offered the possibility of performing symphonic music when no orchestra was available, as was the case with Rachmaninov‘s Suite in D minor (see below).

Rachmaninov’s romances are characterised by their elaborate and expressive piano parts. The piano accompaniment sometimes outweighs the vocal part as Rachmaninov remarks in a letter to pianist Maria Kersina in 1906: “… in these romances his [the accompanist’s] rôle is more difficult than the singer’s.” And on the romance Night is Mournful: “Actually not he [the singer] has to sing but the accompanist on the piano.” Thus it is not surprising that Rachmaninov’s romances inspired both literal transcriptions which leave the musical material almost unchanged (e.g. Daisies by Rachmaninov himself, and the transcriptions by Alexander Siloti and Alexander Schaefer), and freer transcriptions which enrich the given material by changing the texture, expanding the range of tones, adding filigree or voices, but without leaving the sphere of the original (e.g. Lilacs by Rachmaninov himself, and the transcriptions by Sergey Kursanov, Dmitri Paperno and Isaac Mikhnovsky).

Rachmaninov composed almost all of his romances at his estate, Ivanovka, to verses of Russian poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, dedicating them to relatives, friends, colleagues and teachers. “The estate is like the sea—without end or borders, wheat and oak fields from one horizon to the other,” Rachmaninov remembered. “One often praises the sea air but if you only knew how much better the steppe air is with its flavour of the soil, the plants… There was also a vast park, orchards and a big lake… In every Russian […] there is a searching for calm, silence, the admiration of nature in which he lives, and partly a longing for reclusiveness, loneliness…”

Rachmaninov’s words seem to reveal some source of inspiration for his romances which to a large extent explore the lyrical cosmos, rarely the realm of epic poem, sarcasm or genre.

His transcriptions of Lilacs  10  and Daisies  19  are masterpieces of refined lyricism; Lilacs, beginning and ending with the pentatonic, has melodies flowing effortlessly, as if slightly stirred by some light wind; Daisies belongs to the last opus of romances, with its chromaticism in the accompaniment adding a more mature fragrance to the melody.

In the Silence of the Mysterious Night  3  begins in an atmosphere of sensuality with languishing pianissimo harmonies in the accompaniment (diminished seventh and ninth chords) and, after a sequenced rising polyphonic dialogue, culminates in a Rachmaninovian euphoria permeated with despair; the coda brings a distant echo ending ppp.

Do Not Sing to Me, Beautiful Maiden  20  on verses by A. Pushkin has an oriental tone colour of bitter-sweet nostalgia, characterised by its sad longing melody, its repetitions, the ostinati and descending chromatic voices in the accompaniment.

How Fair Is This Place  1  is one of the most intimate romances. Based on a short melodic motive (dolce e espressivo) it develops almost imperceptibly from a blissful contemplation of nature into a confession of love, before descending again to the still more intense tranquillity of the beginning.

Contrasting with the lyrical romances are contemplative-philosophical (All Things Pass By  15 ), impatient-passionate (Do Not Believe Me, Friend  18 ), exuberant (Spring Waters  6 ) and those belonging to the universe of dark emotions: seemingly never-ending numbing sorrow (Night is Mournful  13 ), resignation and loss (To My Sorrow  21 ]), desperate loneliness (Why Is My Sick Heart Beating so Frantically  12 ), the torments of unfulfilled love (How Much It Hurts  11 ), eternal longing for the impossible (She Is as Lovely as Noon  5 ), and exasperating remorse (He Took All from Me  14 ). The feverishly passionate It’s Time  8  anticipates in some way the Etude-tableau, Op. 39, No. 5, written in a similar texture and the same key, E flat minor.

On 6th January 1891, the seventeen-year old Rachmaninov wrote to his friend Natalia Skalon: “These two and a half days I have been composing all the time; I have just finished the instrumentation of my suite.” And on 10th January: “As to the orchestral suite, my affair did not get off, they won’t play it as it is written for large symphony orchestra… So […] next year […] I will organise a concert myself and play it… Now I have given it to Tchaikovsky to look at, I trust him blindly.” The piano transcription of the orchestral suite was found in Alexander Siloti’s archive in Moscow in 2002. The first movement in D minor, composed in classical sonata form and in its introduction anticipating the Prelude in C sharp minor, already displays the characteristic Rachmaninovian melodic-harmonic idiom. The dark flow of the main theme contrasts with the fragile beauty of the second theme in A minor and the Schubertian third theme in F major. The second movement in B minor, a sort of sombre sarabande, unfolds its tragic, introverted theme into a large hymn, flowing into a seemingly endless space. The third movement in F sharp major, exploring the historical form of a Menuet, is followed by a festive-playful rondo in D major, connecting varying textures and moods in a sort of kaleidoscope with a light-hearted bravura ending.

Julia Severus

A Note on the Transcribers

Alexander Siloti (1863–1945) enjoyed a distinguished career as a pianist, conductor and composer, at first in his native Russia and then in the United States, where he eventually settled after the Revolution. He was born on his father’s family estate near Kharkov in the Ukraine. Like Rachmaninov, he studied with Nikolay Zverev, and then at the Moscow Conservatory with Nikolay Rubinstein, Sergey Taneyev and Tchaikovsky, followed by a period in Weimar under Liszt. By the time of the 1917 Revolution he had secured a position for himself in the Russian musical establishment, as a conductor doing much to promote new Russian music. In America he found a place for himself particularly as a teacher, from 1925 as a member of staff of The Juilliard School in New York. He left a very large number of piano transcriptions and is credited with various editorial changes in Tchaikovsky’s First and Second Piano Concertos.

Alexander Schaefer (1866–1914) was born in St Petersburg and studied at the Conservatory there, embarking on a collaboration with the publisher Zimmermann. He was responsible for a large number of piano transcriptions, particularly of works in the then contemporary Russian repertoire, including many of Rachmaninov’s songs and the operas of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Born in Smolensk, Isaak Mikhnovsky (1914–1978) studied in Moscow at the Mussorgsky Music School, the Gnesin Institute, and finally Moscow Conservatory. His victory in the First All-Union Piano Competition in 1938 established his reputation and he went on to a distinguished career as a concert pianist. His compositions include fantasias based on Russian operas and a significant number of other transcriptions.

Dmitri Paperno was born in Kiev in 1929. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory and enjoyed a career as a concert pianist, enhanced by his triumph in the 1955 Warsaw International Chopin Competition. He moved to the United States in 1976 and taught at the De Paul University in Chicago, where he is now Professor Emeritus.

The Russian composer Sergey Kursanov (1947–2006) added to the piano concert repertoire in particular with a series of demanding concert fantasies, the best-known derived from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade¸ followed by paraphrases based on works by Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov, and a wide variety of other transcriptions, ranging from works by Saint-Saëns to waltzes and marches by the Strauss family, and a piano version of a film score by the popular Soviet composer Georgy Sviridov.

Keith Anderson

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