RACHMANINOV: Variations on a Theme of Correlli / Moments Musicaux, Op. 16 (Idil Biret/ Martin Sauer) (Naxos: 8.550349)
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Sergey Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)
Piano Sonata No. 21n B Flat Minor, Op. 36
Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42
Moments Musicaux, Op. 16
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 itbecame necessary to sell the estate at Oneg and to move to St. Petersburg, theexpense of education for the Imperial service proved too great. Rachmaninovcould make use, instead, of his musical gifts, entering St. PetersburgConservatory at the age 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failedhis general subject examinations at the Conservatory and there were threatsthat his scholarship would be withdrawn.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 Beverly 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 oncemore two 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 to spendhis final years in the United States.
Rachmaninov wrote the first of his twopiano sonatas in 1907. The Second Piano Sonata, Opus 36, was completed in itsfirst version in 1913 during a summer spent at Ivanovka, while he worked alsoon the orchestration of his large scale choral work, The Bells, that he hadstarted in Rome earlier in the year, intending it for performance in Sheffield,an event prevented by the outbreak of war. The sonata was revised and abridgedin 1931, when the composer cut some 120 bars from the work and rewrote andsimplified some passages. The sonata, in the key of B flat minor, offers astormy first subject, and a gentler second in a dotted rhythm that had assumedimportance in the Opus 32 Preludes. A brief linking passage introduces acentral slow movement, integrated into the whole structure, and similarly linkedto a final stormy Allegro molto in B flat major.
The Variations on a Theme of Corelli,Opus 42, were written in 1931 and make use of a well known theme that theseventeenth century violinist-composer Arcangelo Corelli had used as the basisof a set of variations in the twelfth of his solo violin sonatas. The melody,La folia, known in French as Les folies d'Espagne, was among the mostpopular tunes of the Baroque period, appearing variously as a dance, song ortheme for instrumental variations, whether in The Beggar's Opera, in thework of Vivaldi, Handel or Bach. The melody makes an appearance in the work ofCherubini in Paris in the early nineteenth century and was used in 1863 byLiszt for his Rapsodie espagnole and by Carl Nielsen in 1906 in his operaMaskarade.
Rachmaninov, in his series of twentyvariations on La folia, a forerunner of his later Paganini Variations,wrote the only solo piano work of his exile, a sign of a measure of restoredconfidence, after the relative failure of his Fourth Piano Concerto in1926. The Paganini Rhapsody followed in 1934 and the Third Symphony
in the years immediately following. The Corelli Variations are a masterlyexploration of the possibilities of this simplest of original material. Thework is conceived as a unity, with an Intermezzo, in fact a cadenza, before thefourteenth variation, and final rapid variations leading to a gentle coda. TheVariations represent a new phase in Rachmaninov's interrupted career as acomposer, where a tendency to greater clarity of texture is coupled withconsiderable harmonic originality and daring.
Rachmaninov wrote his six MomentsMusicaux, Op. 16, between October and December 1896, at a time when he waspreoccupied with the coming performance of his first symphony. These pieces,nevertheless, show the beginnings of the composer's style of piano-writing. Thepoignant opening Andantino in B flat minor is followed by an E flatminor Allegretto, characteristic of Rachmaninov in the romantic right-handtheme and the bravura of the intricate passage-work. The third piece is ameditative Andante cantabile in B minor, sombre music through which there is anoccasional shaft of sunlight. This leads to a brilliant E minor Presto. Thelast two pieces of the set turn to major keys, with an optimistic D flat majorAdagio sostenuto and a grandiose concluding C major Maestoso.
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 Cortotand Wilhelm Kempff, andcomposition with Nadia Boulanger.
Since the age