RACHMANINOV: Piano Transcriptions and Arrangements (Idil Biret/ Martin Sauer) (Naxos: 8.550978)
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Sergey Rachmaninov (1973 - 1943)
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 rules 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. Transcriptions, however, were another matter, and formed an attractive and popular element in his recitals. His arrangements for piano of three movements from Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita in E major for unaccompanied violin were made in 1933. The transcription of the Prelude, into which interesting new elements are introduced, was heard in London in April 1933 and the three movements, with the Gavotte and final Gigue were first performed together in November in America. The following year brought a concert tour there in which he was able to give the first performance of his new Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
The imaginative arrangement of Schubert's song Wohin, from Die Schöne Müllerin, was made in 1925, the year in which, following the sudden death of his son-in-law Prince pyotr Volkonsky after barely a year of marriage, he set up a publishing house, primarily for the benefit of his daughters. The song becomes a splendid example of the transcriber's art, preserving, with the most delicate of additions, the full flavour of the original, as the stream flows on, questioned by the young lover, the miller's apprentice.
The demanding and idiomatic arrangement of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's incidental music for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was made in 1933 and first heard at San Antonio, in Texas, on 23rd January, to be introduced to the London public in April that year. It captures the lightness and variety of the original.
The piano concertos of Liszt and other works by that composer had always been apart of Rachmaninov's repertoire. In 1919 he played for the first time, on 10th January, in Boston, Liszt's second Hungarian Rhapsody with his own cadenza, as impressive as his whole virtuoso performance must have been.
The transcription of the Hopak from Mussorgsky's Sorochintsy Fair is dated 1st January 1924, but had been devised in 1920 and 1921, to be first performed in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on 13th November 1923, during a season of 71 concerts that had taken Rachmaninov also to Canada and to Cuba. The arrangement of the Minuet from Bizet' s L'Arlesienne also comes from the earlier years of exile. It was first performed at Tulsa, Oklahoma, during an American tour in 1922. Rachmaninov's transcription of Rimsky-Korsakov's rapid Flight of the Bumble Bee was made in 1931, providing another Russian element, followed here by an arrangement of Tchaikovsky's Lullaby, Opus 16, No.1, that bears the date 12th August 1941. It was first performed in Syracuse on 14th October in the same year.
Rachmaninov arranged for solo piano three of his earlier works. Margaritki (Daisies) is one of a group of songs written in 1916 and published as Opus 38 and Siren' (Lilacs) is taken from the earlier Opus 21 collection of songs of 1902. His opera Aleko, an examination task at the Moscow Conservatory which he completed in one month in 1892, brought recognition of his outstanding abilities from his teacher Arensky and the enthusiastic approval of Tchaikovsky, who attended the first performance in 1893. The Dance of the Young Gypsies from the opera is an effective transcription of an excerpt from the score of a work based on Pushkin's Tsigany (Gypsies).
The violinist Fritz Kreisler had made his own transcriptions of Rachmaninov's Daisies. In 1925 and again in 1931 Rachmaninov transcribed two works by Kreisler, Liebesfreud (Love's Joy) and Liebesleid (Love's Sorrow). These were first performed in Stamford and in Chicago respectively, in the years of their composition. Rachmaninov partnered Kreisler in recitals and recordings during his years in America.
Lachtäubchen or La rieuse was published by Rachmaninov in 1911 as Polka W.R., making use of a popular polka by Franz Behr that had been a staple part of Rachmaninov's father's repertoire. It is, therefore, as attribute to Vasily Rachmaninov, remembered in the published title, that this light-hearted and now relatively elaborate piece may be heard, with its formal dedication to the virtuoso pianist Leopold Godowsky.
The list of transcriptions by Rachmaninov is completed by the inclusion of his version of The Star Spangled Banner, an addition to his recital repertoire to mark his performance at Providence, Rhode Island, on 8th December 1918, the beginning of a long association with the United States that lasted until his death in Beverley Hills in 1943.
Born in Ankara, Idil Biret started to learn the piano at the age of three and later studied at the Paris Conservatoire under the guidance of Nadia Boulanger, graduating at the age of fifteen with three first prizes. A pupil of Alfred Cortot and of Wilhelm Kempff, she embarked on her career as a soloist at the age of sixteen, appearing with major orchestras in the principal musical centres of the world, in collaboration with conductors of the greatest distinction. To many festival appearances may be added membership of juries for international piano competitions, including the Van Cliburn, Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians and Busoni Competitions. She has received the Lili Boulanger Memorial Award in Boston, the Harriet Cohen/Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal in London, the Polish Artistic Merit Award and the French Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Merite. Her more than sixty records include the first recording of Liszt's transcription of the symphonies of Beethoven, and for Naxos the complete piano works of Chopin, Brahms and Rachmaninov, with a Marco Polo disc of the piano compositions and transcriptions of her mentor Wilhelm Kempff.