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Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op 43

'Rachmaninov: The Piano Concertos' (CDA67501/2)
Rachmaninov: The Piano Concertos
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'Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos' (APR6005)
Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos
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'Rachmaninov: The Piano Concertos' (SACDA67501/2)
Rachmaninov: The Piano Concertos
This album is not yet available for download SACDA67501/2  2CDs Super-Audio CD — Deleted  
No 01. Introduction: Allegro vivace
No 02. Variation 1: Precedente
No 03. Theme: L'istesso tempo
No 04. Variation 2: L'istesso tempo
No 05. Variation 3: L'istesso tempo
No 06. Variation 4: Piω vivo
No 07. Variation 5: Tempo precedente
No 08. Variation 6: L'istesso tempo
No 09. Variation 7: Meno mosso, a tempo moderato
No 10. Variation 8: Tempo I
No 11. Variation 9: L'istesso tempo
No 12. Variation 10: a 2 poco marcato
No 12. Variation 10: Poco marcato
Track 18 on CDA67501/2 CD1 [0'48] 2CDs
Track 18 on SACDA67501/2 CD1 [0'48] 2CDs Super-Audio CD — Deleted
No 13. Variation 11: Moderato
No 14. Variation 12: Tempo di minuetto
No 14. Variation 12: Tempo di Minuetto
No 14. Variation 12: Tempo di minuetto
No 15. Variation 13: Allegro
No 16. Variation 14: L'istesso tempo
No 17. Variation 15: Piω vivo scherzando
Track 23 on CDA67501/2 CD1 [1'09] 2CDs
Track 23 on SACDA67501/2 CD1 [1'09] 2CDs Super-Audio CD — Deleted
No 17. Variation 15: Piω vivo. Scherzando
No 18. Variation 16: Allegretto
No 19. Variation 17: [Allegretto]
No 20. Variation 18: Andante cantabile
No 21. Variation 19: A tempo vivace
Track 27 on CDA67501/2 CD1 [0'26] 2CDs
Track 27 on SACDA67501/2 CD1 [0'26] 2CDs Super-Audio CD — Deleted
No 21. Variation 19: L'istesso tempo
No 22. Variation 20: Un poco piω vivo
No 23. Variation 21: Un poco piω vivo
No 24. Variation 22: Marziale. Un poco piω vivo
No 24. Variation 22: Un poco piω vivo, alla breve
Track 30 on CDA67501/2 CD1 [1'37] 2CDs
Track 30 on SACDA67501/2 CD1 [1'37] 2CDs Super-Audio CD — Deleted
No 25. Variation 23: L'istesso tempo
No 26. Variation 24: A tempo un poco meno mosso

Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op 43
For all Rachmaninov’s struggles with the structure of the Fourth Concerto, its composition at least reminded him what it felt like to be creative. 1928 saw the publication of his Three Russian Songs for choir and orchestra and in 1931 he composed the solo piano work generally known as the Corelli Variations, although its theme is one that Corelli himself had merely borrowed from the stock-in-trade of Baroque techniques. The Corelli Variations also drew their share of critical flak, and Rachmaninov himself had doubts about their merit, routinely omitting a number of variations each time he played them, according to the amount of coughing in the audience (as he wryly observed to Medtner). But they form another significant precedent for his next major work, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, composed in 1934 at his then recently purchased lakeside villa near Lucerne. The Rhapsody takes another commonplace idea from musical history and plays more or less serious games with it. And although the game-playing aspect is by no means the only fascinating feature of this work, its more general significance is enormous. It enabled Rachmaninov to be confident in his creative vitality, in that he could now return to the musical language he had left behind nearly twenty years previously, without being constrained by its associations with grandiloquent emotionalism. In effect he could now step outside his own musical persona and let it assume all sorts of roles, from old-fashioned poetic confession to a smart urbanity no more than a whisker away from Gershwin.

The theme itself comes from the last of Paganini’s Twenty-four Caprices Op 1 for solo violin. This unobtrusive yet wonderfully suggestive pattern of flicking upbeat motifs had already captured the imagination of Liszt and Brahms, and it would continue to inspire composers after Rachmaninov, as diverse as Witold Lutosl/awski and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Rachmaninov’s first game is to place the theme – on the strings with the piano picking out salient notes – after the first variation. And that initial ‘variation’ – on pizzicato strings following a general clearing of throats for orchestra and piano – is itself already something of a game, since it makes a pun with the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (which likewise introduces a skeletal version before the theme itself). Now that the work is properly under way, Variations ii to vi start to split the elements of the theme apart and to recombine them into new musical personalities. The pauses and rhetorical flourishes for the piano in Variation vi herald a change of tempo and tone. Next the piano gravely intones the head-motif of the Dies irae – the medieval ‘Day or Wrath’ plainchant from the Mass for the Dead – while the orchestra accompanies with the opening motif of the Paganini theme. The Dies irae was a favourite of Rachmaninov’s, and its apocalyptic associations are by no means irrelevant even here. Still, the combination of ideas is a kind of musical game, and one that will be played out later in the Rhapsody.

But not immediately. In Variation viii the piano reinstates the fast opening tempo and leads off with determined staccato chords. This is another musical pun – an in-joke even. The motif is still Paganini’s, but the shape and gesture are taken straight from Glazunov’s Sixth Symphony, which the twenty-three-year-old Rachmaninov had arranged for two pianos. The piano and orchestra’s confrontational chords continue to accumulate, until the Dies irae bursts through again on the piano’s low octaves in Variation x. Another general pause ensues, and the piano’s scale and arpeggio flourishes in Variation xi herald a new slow phase. Variation xii is in the tempo of a minuet, with the Dies irae motif once again more to the fore than the Paganini theme.

Back in the main Allegro tempo, Variations xiii to xv form a kind of scherzo, the last of the three variations being initially for piano alone. Variations xvi and xvii become ever more shadowy, continuing the sequence of key-changes that began with No xiv and setting the stage for the famous Variation xviii. This glorious lyrical outpouring, based on an inversion of Paganini’s main motif (a sublime piece of game-playing this!), was already a legend in its composer’s lifetime, at least as early as 1939 when Fokine choreographed a ballet to the Rhapsody and – apparently with Rachmaninov’s collaboration – reintroduced the big tune as an apotheosis at the end of the work.

The last six variations make a dazzling finale, with piano, orchestra and composer going through increasingly virtuoso paces, and Rachmaninov’s last game-like gesture comes with the throwaway final cadence. In another sense, the very last of Rachmaninov’s games is actually the title he eventually settled on, having considered and rejected the perfectly appropriate ‘Symphonic Variations’ and the less happy ‘Fantasia’. For this Rhapsody is one of the most tautly constructed, least rhapsodic works he ever composed, and at the same time one of the most disciplined and inventive (not to mention thrilling and sensuously beautiful) sets of variations ever composed.

from notes by David Fanning © 2004

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Details for CDA67501/2 disc 1 track 11
No 5 Variation 3: L'istesso tempo
Recording date
1 May 2004
Recording venue
Eugene McDermott Concert Hall, Morton H Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, USA
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Jeff Mee
Hyperion usage
  1. Rachmaninov: The Piano Concertos (CDA67501/2)
    Disc 1 Track 11
    Release date: October 2004
  2. Rachmaninov: The Piano Concertos (SACDA67501/2)
    Disc 1 Track 11
    Release date: October 2004
    Deletion date: January 2009
    2CDs Super-Audio CD — Deleted
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