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Hyperion Records

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Track(s) taken from CDS44041/8
Recording details: April 1983
St George the Martyr, Queen Square, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: June 1988
Total duration: 41 minutes 36 seconds

Preludes, Op 32
August/September 1910; No 6: 25/8; No 8: 24/8; No 10: 6/9; No 12: 23/8

Other recordings available for download
Howard Shelley (piano)
Steven Osborne (piano)
Sergio Fiorentino (piano)
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Unlike Chopin, Scriabin and even Shostakovich, Rachmaninov does not order his preludes systematically by keys. In fact it is not even clear precisely when he determined that he would complete a cycle of twenty-four, though he had evidently decided on that path when he came to compose the thirteen Preludes of his Op 32 in 1910. This was directly after his Piano Concerto No 3 (as before, there is a certain amount of overlap with the pianistic idiom of that work). Yet there are enough informal tonal relationships between consecutive Preludes—especially in the Op 32 collection, where eight of the preludes are paired by opposite modes—and enough variety in the succession of tempi and moods, to make performance of each set, or even of all twenty-four Preludes, as a unit a realistic option for any pianist intrepid enough to take it.

The C major finger-loosener often placed at the outset of such a cycle now appears as a launch-pad for the Op 32 Preludes. This one is not as ferociously sky-rocketing as its counterpart in Liszt’s Transcendentals, but it certainly issues a challenge, not least by proposing rising motifs as a counter-balance to Rachmaninov’s habitual dying falls. A neoclassical archetype not yet explored is the swaying siciliano rhythm, which now becomes the guiding thread through the B flat minor Prelude, No 2, a piece built on two waves of acceleration, neither of which succeeds in shaking off a fundamental melancholy or in avoiding a conclusion in a mood of stoical resignation.

The Allegro vivace E major Prelude does break free, however, in another neo-Bachian aerobic workout, almost like an updated solo version of a Brandenburg Concerto. There is even, perhaps, the ghost of gigue behind its shadowy successor, the E minor Prelude No 4, whose contrasting sigh figures are eventually given their due in a languorous central section. With the rocking motion and ecstatic, flowering melody of the G major No 5 we gain the first glimpse in the Op 32 set of consoling lyricism. At the opposite extreme, the turbulent F minor is full of wrathful passion. The nearest Rachmaninov comes to cheery playfulness in any of his Preludes is the almost genial F major, No 7. Pre-figuring the Étude-tableau from Op 39 in the same key, the A minor Prelude No 8 is implacably driven, as if with the wind at its back and the rain swirling round it. A further switch to the opposite mode for No 9 brings another luxuriant tapestry woven from the thread of a sighing motif. Then come two more siciliano-based pieces, the slow B minor Prelude, No 10, with its pulverizing contrasting section, and the faster, more restrained B major Prelude.

The G sharp minor Prelude, No 12, is the last favourite encore piece in the set, its harp-like figurations running like water down the window-panes of a Russian dacha. Finally the D flat major Prelude once again closes a frame, this time harking right back to the infamous C sharp minor of Op 3; it also has a certain summative quality, thanks to its inclusion of siciliano rhythms, sighing motifs, étude figurations, an accelerating middle section and a ringing chordal apotheosis. As if to trademark his piano idiom, Rachmaninov here concludes with a piece that demands a formidable hand-stretch, of the kind he almost uniquely possessed.

from notes by David Fanning © 2009

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