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Track(s) taken from CDA66081

Morceaux de fantaisie, Op 3

composer
Autumn 1892; first performed in Kharkov, 28 December 1892

Howard Shelley (piano)
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: 23 minutes 35 seconds
 
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Other recordings available for download

Howard Shelley (piano)
Nikolai Demidenko (piano)

Reviews

'Elegant and scintillating' (Gramophone)

'Exceptional finesse … mirrored in beautilully natural and refined sound' (BBC Record Review)

'An essential recommendation' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'Nothing less than a revelation' (The Guardian)

'These masterly performances can, I think, lay claim to being the finest, certainly the most individual, that we have yet heard on disc' (Hi-Fi News)
Whilst preparing for a concert at Kharkov (400 miles south of Moscow), Rachmaninov decided to add a group of other pieces (originally three, finally four) to the Prelude, to make a set which Gutheil published in February 1893 as his Opus 3, the Morceaux de Fantaisie. The five pieces were dedicated to Arensky, one of his Conservatory professors. Because of the popularity of the Prelude, the Opus 3 pieces are rarely played as a group. When they are the range and subtlety of Rachmaninov’s compositional genius (even at the age of nineteen) become apparent. The emotional range is wide: from the deep tragedy of the Prelude to the joyous character of the Serenade, and the whimsy of Polichinelle. The subtlety is shown by the fact that a tiny melodic cell—the semitonal fall, or its extension the whole-tone step and their inversions—is heard at the beginning of every one of the five pieces. Whilst it is too much to claim that this gives the pieces a unity of organic strength (of which Rachmaninov was certainly capable), it is fascinating to see how this tiny cell is used again and again in these pieces. In passing, one should note also that this semitonal fall begins the Dies irae, almost the idée fixe in this composer’s mature compositions.

As we know, the Prelude was composed first, so the remaining pieces had to be ‘placed’ around it. One of Rachmaninov’s close friends at that time, the tenor Mikhail Slonov, suggested the title ’Polichinelle’ for what became the fourth piece. As mentioned earlier, it was Rachmaninov’s intention to compose a set of four pieces, but he added a fifth on reading an interview which Tchaikovsky had given to a newspaper critic in November 1892, when he said he felt he had to give younger talents a chance, and mentioned Glazunov, Arensky and Rachmaninov as the most outstanding of the younger school. Rachmaninov was so thrilled; as he said at the time, ‘I sat down at the piano and composed a fifth piece (the Serenade). So now I’ll publish five pieces.’

Rachmaninov premiered the complete Morceaux de Fantaisie in Kharkov on December 27th, and two months later to the day he gave Tchaikovsky one of the first copies of the newly-published set. A week later, Tchaikovsky wrote to Siloti saying how impressed he had been with them, especially the Prelude and the Mélodie. In the event, the Prelude proved a double-edged success. On the one hand, it soon travelled throughout the world (in the 1920s in New York, Rachmaninov heard the Paul Whiteman Band play a jazz version, which he much enjoyed, and had a similar experience in a London restaurant). It spread the fame of the young composer in such a way that by the time he was in his early twenties his name was known to a large international public. On the other hand the very popularity of the work came to curse him later in life, when he became a touring virtuoso: audiences would not let him leave without playing the piece as an encore. Furthermore, in 1893 Russia was not a signatory to any international copyright agreement, so all Rachmaninov ever received for a piece that was played and broadcast millions of times during his life was the forty roubles Gutheil paid for it (he gave two hundred roubles for the five pieces), and the royalties from his subsequent recordings of it. Towards the end of his life Rachmaninov revised three of the five pieces: in 1938 he made a transcription for two pianos of the Prelude, and in 1940 completely revised the Mélodie and Serenade.

from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker 1983

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