RACHMANINOV: Variations on a Theme of Chopin / Preludes (Idil Biret) (Naxos: 8.554426)
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Variations on a Themeof 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;
Pi?¿ce in D minor;Fragments; Oriental Sketch; Prelude in F major; Prelude 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 achange in the fortunes of the family when increasing debts necessitated thesale of one estate after another, followed by removal to an apartment in StPetersburg. It was there that Rachmaninov, at the age of nine, entered theConservatory on a scholarship. The subsequent separation of his parents and hisown failure in general subject examinations brought about his move to theMoscow Conservatory, where he was under the strict supervision of NikolayZverev, in whose house he lodged. In Moscow, as time went on, he wonconsiderable success, both as a performer and as a composer, although it was atfirst on the second of these roles that he seemed likely to concentrate.
The Revolution of 1917 brought many changes. While some musiciansremained in Russia, others chose temporary or permanent exile abroad.
Rachmaninov took the latter course and thereafter found himself obliged to relyon 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 hadto take second place and it was principally as a pianist, one of the greatestof his time, that he became known to audiences.
Rachmaninov's works for solo piano had been written principally in theyears before the Revolution, with only the later addition of his Variationson a Theme of Corelli, in fact the well known La Follia theme, in1931, when he revised the second of his two Piano Sonatas. His Variationson a Theme of Chopin, Opus 22 was written between August 1902 and February1903 and first performed by the composer in Moscow in the latter month. Thetheme is that of the well known Prelude in C minor, Opus 28, No. 20. Thesolemn theme is heard first followed by 22 variations, the first offering asingle melodic line, which is, in the second and third, further developed withcontrapuntal embellishment. The work, which is in a continuous form, developsin volume and complexity, with a sixth variation with cross-rhythms and in avery characteristic romantic mood. Filigree textures mark the seventh andeighth variations, before the resolute determination of the ninth, furtherdeveloped in the tenth variation. Remoter territory of greater serenity isexplored in what follows, leading to a twelfth contrapuntal version and achordal thirteenth. The mood of tranquillity is broken by more resoluteelements in the fourteenth, with its solemnly descending chords, leading to thescherzo-like fifteenth and a gently wistful sixteenth. The following derivativeof the theme offers weighty chords, before a more tender mood prevails. This isinterrupted by the determined chords of the nineteenth variation, leading to avariation in rapidly running notes, a lyrical penultimate version of thematerial and the strongly marked rhythm as the work marches towards itsconclusion in chords that at times suggest Schumann rather than Chopin, beforea final Rachmaninov flourish.
The Moments musicaux, Opus 16 were written between October andDecember 1896. The second of the set was revised in February 1940. Nine yearsbefore, in 1931, Rachmaninov had reconstructed from memory his D minor Lento,known as Song without Words, originally written in 1886-87 as anexercise in the Conservatory class of Arensky. The Canon in E minor waspresumably written for a similar purpose, perhaps to be dated a few yearslater. The Fughetta came in February 1899 at a period in the composer'slife when composition had been difficult, if not impossible, after the failureof his First Symphony, although he was now able to relax after asuccessful season as conductor with the Mamontov Opera. The Morceau defantaisie in G minor belongs to the same period of relative inactivity as acomposer. In 1899 he was, in any case, preoccupied largely with a concert-tourto England as a pianist and conductor of his own work.
The Piece in D minor cannot be precisely dated but may besupposed 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 fromNovember 1917, a few weeks before Rachmaninov and his family finally leftRussia. Fragments was first published in an American magazine in 1919,while the Oriental Sketch, distinguished by the energy of its motorrhythm, was first performed by the composer in 1931 and published in 1938. The Andantema non troppo in D minor, published posthumously as Prelude, datesfrom the same period, one of some anxiety, in view of the political situation,from which Rachmaninov was saved by an invitation to give concerts inStockholm. It is here preceded by his Prelude in F major, an early work,written in 1891 and later arranged for cello and piano. It was performed inthis version in 1892 with Rachmaninov's friend, the cellist Anatoly Brandukov,for whom Tchaikovsky had written his Pezzo capriccioso.