RACHMANINOV: Etudes-Tableaux, Opp. 33 and 39 (Idil Biret/ Martin Sauer) (Naxos: 8.550347)
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Sergey Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)
Etudes-tableaux, Op. 33 Etudes-tableaux,Op. 39
Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninov was bornat Semyonovo in 1873. His family, one of strong military traditions on both hisfather's and mother's side, was well-to-do, but the extravagance of his fathermade it necessary to sell off much of their land. Rachmaninov's childhood wasspent largely at the one remaining family estate at Oneg, near Novgorod. Thereduction in family circumstances had at least one happier result. When it becamenecessary to sell the estate at Oneg and to move to St. Petersburg, the expenseof education for the Imperial service proved too great. Rachmaninov could makeuse, instead, of his musical gifts, entering St. Petersburg Conservatory at theage of nine as a scholarship student.
Not a particularly industrious studentand lacking the attention that he needed at home, in 1885 Rachmaninov failedhis general subject examinations at the Conservatory and there were threatsthat his scholarship would be withdrawn. His mother, now separated from hisfather and responsible for the boy's welfare, arranged that he should move toMoscow to study with Zverev, a teacher of known strictness. In Zverev's house,however uncongenial the strict routine, he acquired much of his phenomenaltechnique as a pianist, while broadening his musical understanding by attendingconcerts in the city .At the age of fifteen he became a pupil of Zverev'sformer pupil Ziloti at the Conservatory, studying counterpoint and harmony withSergey Taneyev and Arensky. His growing interest in composition led to aquarrel with Zverev and removal to the house of his relations, the Satins.
In 1891 Rachmaninov completed his pianostudies at the Conservatory and the composition of his first piano concerto.
The following year he graduated from the composition class and composed hisnotorious prelude in C sharp minor, a piece that was to haunt him by itsexcessive 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 Cesar Cuiwho described it as a student attempt to depict in music the seven plagues ofEgypt. Rachmaninov busied himself as a conductor, signing a contract with theMamontov opera company. As a composer, however, he suffered from the poorreception of his symphony and was only enabled to continue after a course oftreatment with Dr. Nikolay Dahl, a believer in the efficacy of hypnotism. Theimmediate result was the second of his four piano concertos.
The years before the Russian revolutionbrought continued successful activity as a composer and as a conductor. In 1902Rachmaninov married Natalya Satina and went on to pursue a career, that broughthim increasing international fame. There were journeys abroad and a busyprofessional life, from which summer holidays at the estate of Ivanovka, whichhe finally acquired from the Satins in 1910, provided respite. All this wasinterrupted with the abdication of the Tsar in 1917 and the beginning of therevolution.
Rachmaninov left Russia in 1917. Fromthen until his death in Beverley Hills in 1943, he was obliged to rely largelyon performance for a living. Now there was very much less time for composition,as he undertook demanding concert tours, during which he dazzled audiences inEurope and America with his remarkable powers as a pianist. His house atIvanovka was destroyed in the Russian civil war, and in 1931, the year of theCorelli Variations, his music was banned in Russia, to be permitted once moretwo years later. He spent much time in America, where there were lucrativeconcert tours, but established a music publishing house in Paris and built forhimself a villa near Lucerne, where he completed his Paganini Rhapsody
in 1934 and his Third Symphony a year later. In 1939 he left Europe tospend his final years in the United States.
The first group of Etudes-tableaux,Opus 33, was written in the summer of 1911. It originally consisted of ninepieces, the fourth of which was withdrawn and revised to become the sixth ofthe later set of Etudes-tableaux, Opus 39.
The third and fifth were publishedposthumously, so that the first published set contained only six pieces. Ofthese all but two are in minor keys. The first, in F minor, proceeds in solemnmarch rhythm, suggesting, in its conclusion, a mere hint of Rachmaninov'srecurrent idee fixe, the opening notes of the Dies irae of theLatin Requiem Mass. The C major second Etude soon touches on the moremelancholy minor, as it unfolds, leading to a third, in an initial C minor,that later provided material for the Fourth Piano Concerto. Opus 33 No.5,fourth Etude-tableau of the later published Opus 33, refers in its opening tothe first of Rachmaninov's two piano sonatas, and is based largely on a figureharmonically associated with the French horn. The fifth of the series is in Eflat minor, the stillness of its conclusion interrupted by the strong openingof the sixth, in E flat major. The melancholy G minor of the seventh of thegroup leads to a final C sharp minor Etude, in a key and with an opening figurethat suggest the well known Prelude in the same key.
The Etudes-tableaux published asOpus 39 were written in 1916 and 1917 and make very much greater demands on theperformer. Only the last of the nine Etudes is in a major key. The first of thegroup, in C minor, demands immediate virtuosity and is followed by a dramatic Aminor Etude that again has suggestions of the Dies irae. Its gentlypoetic conclusion leads to a fierce F sharp minor burst of activity. Theenergetic fourth Etude, in B minor, leads to a passionate E flat minor and adramatic A minor Etude, revised from its original version in the firstset of studies. The poignantly tragic C minor seventh Etude is succeededby the eighth, in D minor, while the whole series ends with the strongly markedrhythms of the D major conclusion of the ninth of the studies. The title Etudes-tableaux
suggests, of course, some pictorial or extra-musical inspiration. Rachmaninov,well enough known in later life for a certain taciturnity, seems not to havedivulged their origin.
Born in Ankara, Idil Biret began pianolessons at the age of three. She displayed an outstanding gift for music andgraduated from the Paris Conservatoire with three first prizes when she wasfifteen. She studied piano with Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, andcomposition with Nadia Boulanger.
Since the age of sixteen Idil Biret hasperformed in concerts around the world playing with major orchestras under thedirection of conductors such as Monteux, Boult, Kempe, Sargent, de Burgos,Pritchard, Groves and Mackerras. She has participated in the festivals ofMontreal, Persepolis, Royan, La Rochelle, Athens, Berlin, Gstaad and Istanbul.
She was also invited to perform at the 85th birthday celebration of WilhelmBackhaus and at the 90th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Kempff.
Idil Biret received the Lily BoulangerMemorial Fund award (1954/1964), the Harriet Cohen/Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal(1959) and the Polish Artistical Merit Award (1974) and was named Chevalier del'Ordre du Merite in 1976.