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: Più 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
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: Più vivo scherzando
No 17. Variation 15: Più 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
No 21. Variation 19: L'istesso tempo
No 22. Variation 20: Un poco più vivo
No 23. Variation 21: Un poco più vivo
No 24. Variation 22: Marziale. Un poco più vivo
No 24. Variation 22: Un poco più vivo, alla breve
No 25. Variation 23: L'istesso tempo
No 26. Variation 24: A tempo un poco meno mosso
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