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Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

Preludes Op 23

Howard Shelley (piano)
Download only
Label: Hyperion
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: 58 minutes 43 seconds

All of the music on this album is also available as part of the specially priced box set The Complete Rachmaninov Solo Piano Music: ‘A fine achievement from Howard Shelley and Hyperion alike. These superbly recorded, idiomatic readings demonstrate Shelley's virtuoso pianism and affinity for this music in performances of the highest calibre’ (BBC Music Magazine Top 1000 CDs Guide).




‘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)
When Rachmaninov’s parents married in the 1860s their status was that of a well-connected upper middle class family of comfortable means. Rachmaninov’s mother, Lubov, brought five estates as a dowry, and his father, Vassily, had served with distinction against the Caucasian rebels during the Dagestan campaign in the years 1857–9. In the Imperial Russian army, however, the life-style of officers encouraged hard drinking, gambling and almost all other forms of licentiousness, and on leaving the army and following his marriage Vassily began to squander his substantial financial resources on a series of madcap business ventures. Within a dozen years of her marriage, Lubov saw each of their estates sold off, one by one, until in 1881 the last estate (Oneg, where Sergei Rachmaninov had been born on April 2nd 1873) had to be sold, and the couple, with their five children, was obliged to move to an apartment in St Petersburg. No sooner had they arrived than a diphtheria epidemic killed their second daughter, Sophia: the strain proved too much for Vassily, who abandoned his wife and children.

Lubov managed to find suitable schooling for the children, and the natural musical gift which Sergei had already begun to show enabled him to obtain a scholarship at the St Petersburg Conservatory, but, without proper parental control, the boy soon slipped into a life of lazy indolence and truancy. After three years the game was up and he was threatened with expulsion. In despair, Lubov turned to her nephew, Alexander Siloti, a superb musician, who at that time had just returned from extensive studies with Liszt. Eventually he agreed to hear Sergei play and, by no means impressed, suggested the only person to help was his own old teacher, Nikolai Sverev, at the Moscow Conservatory. With Siloti’s influence, Sergei was accepted as a pupil at the age of thirteen, half educated and lacking any systematic or thorough musical training whatsoever. Within four years he had graduated as a pianist with the highest honours, and a year later as a composer, being awarded the Great Gold Medal of the Conservatory—only the third recipient during the twenty-five years of the Conservatory’s existence—with the title ‘Free Artist’. It was an astonishing transformation.

During these few years Sergei had begun to compose and, by the age of eighteen, had written a symphony, an opera and the first version of his F sharp minor Piano Concerto, among many other works. He had also met Tchaikovsky, and the established composer did much to help the young musician’s career, particularly with regard to the first production of the opera—Ajeko—and in Rachmaninov’s negotiations with the music publisher Gutheil. A brilliant academic career does not mean a great deal when the young musician starts his professional life, and Rachmaninov soon found the necessity of earning a living a constant worry. But, as a splendid pianist, he could give recitals, and his professional career as a pianist began on October 9th 1892. He gave a recital as part of the Moscow Electrical Exposition and, although he had played in public before, he always regarded this recital as his debut. His fee was fifty roubles, and his programme included the first movement of Rubinstein’s D minor Concerto and—with orchestra!—Chopin’s Berceuse, a Liszt transcription, and a work he had just completed, a Prelude in C sharp minor. Thus it was that the nineteen-year-old composer-pianist’s professional debut included what was to become his most internationally famous composition.

Whilst preparing for a concert at Kharkov (400 miles south of Moscow) three months later, 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 (as on this recording) 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. (A recording of the revised version of the Mélodie, played by Howard Shelley, can be heard on another record, Hyperion CDA66009).

Ten years after the Morceaux de Fantaisie were first heard, much had happened in the young composer’s personal and professional life. Following the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony (not the student work) under Glazunov in 1895, Rachmaninov gradually lost interest in composition, and it was only after a course of hypnotherapy under Dr Nikolai Dahl in Moscow in 1900 that his muse returned. His career as a conductor, however, had developed enormously during this time, so his musical life was by no means barren. In 1901, following the Second Piano Concerto, the Second Suite for two pianos and the Cello Sonata, his composing life had returned in full flood. His private life, too, had suffered following an unsuccessful affair at the time of the First Symphony (the cryptic dedicatee of the work, ‘A.L.’, was the married woman with whom Rachmaninov had become involved, Anna Lodichensky), but by 1901 his feelings for his cousin Natalia Satin had developed into love and they were eventually married in May 1902. His marriage, as so often with artists, led to a great burst of creativity, including the Ten Preludes for piano which comprise his Opus 23. These were written at the same time as his first extended solo piano work, the Variations on a Theme of Chopin, the theme being one of Chopin’s Op 28 Preludes. But as with the Op 3 pieces, the most famous of the Op 23 Preludes, the fifth, in G minor, was written first, in 1901. It does not require much imagination to see that having begun the Variations, Rachmaninov would naturally be drawn to the work that sparked them off (a set of Preludes) and, having already composed the G minor, he would have begun a set of his own. The Moscow recital on 10 February 1903 in which Rachmaninov premiered the Chopin Variations also saw the first performance of three of the Op 23 set, Nos 1, 2 and 5. The remaining seven were written in Moscow during the next few weeks as the couple awaited the birth of their first child in May. The complete set of Ten Preludes was published later the same year and dedicated to Alexander Siloti (who had been one of the two best men at their wedding). The Opus 23 set continues the cellular construction of Op 3, but on a deeper level. Curiously enough, the stepwise motion is common to all the Preludes, and clearly derives from the C sharp minor. In the case of the first four Preludes from Op 23 the interval falls, and in the next four it rises, and in the ninth and tenth it does both.

With eleven Preludes having been written, it was only a matter of time before Rachmaninov considered completing his set of 24 with a final group of 13. This group, his Opus 32, followed in 1910 when the composer was at the very height of his powers. The year before he had premiered the Third Piano Concerto in New York, and a few months earlier had completed the first of his two large scale sacred works, the Liturgy of St John of Chrysostom, Op 31. By this time, Rachmaninov’s annual routine was predictable. The winter months, the concert season, were given over to concert engagements, and the summer months to rest and work on the large estate at Ivanovka which he owned. The result was that little time could be devoted to composition, so when the rare opportunities arose when Rachmaninov was able to write, his works were written very quickly. His Opus 32, the final set of Thirteen Preludes, illustrates this admirably, for three of them were written in one day (August 23rd—Nos 5, 11 and 12) and the whole set was completed within nineteen days. As a result of this concentrated activity the Op 32 set is somewhat more organic, but it is curious to note how yet again the composer recalls the C sharp minor, the begetter of the entire set of Preludes, in the pervasive cell, and uses much of the material from the first to be written, No 5, in the remaining twelve. In addition, the final Prelude, that in D flat, enharmonically the relative major of the C sharp minor, quotes extensively from the earlier work but with such subtle transformation of material that audiences hardly ever realise where the themes come from. In spite of the speed of their composition, the music is of Rachmaninov’s highest quality, which is saying a lot. The complete first performance of the op 32 Preludes probably took place at the recital on December 5th 1911 in St Petersburg which Rachmaninov gave at short notice for Siloti’s concert series.

In spite of the somewhat haphazard manner in which Rachmaninov compiled his set of twenty-four Preludes, the consistency of his compositional style (which is not to say it did not change or develop, for it manifestly did) ensured no stylistic mismatch when they are played together. The fact that he chose every tonality implies that they should be played as a set (although Rachmaninov never did so in public), and the close connections between each piece and its successor (as well as concluding with the D flat, i.e., C sharp tonality) reinforce this view. We have noted the stepwise motion which acts as a tiny unifying cell, but as an example of Rachmaninov’s further organic style of composition, one can cite the G minor from Op 23. Noting in passing that its own rising gruppetto in the bass is a variation on the intervals which begin the C sharp minor, it is placed between the slow No 4 in D, which acts as a dominant, and the lyrical No 6 in E flat. This sixth Prelude has B flat as its first note, and G as its first melodic note. Both are common to G minor, the key of the previous piece, whose tonality is still felt at the beginning of the E flat Prelude. One can note many subtle connections between these magnificent pieces which, like Chopin’s, can be played individually. One has stressed their unity because they are more frequently played separately, but the fact remains that hearing them in context demonstrates a rarely perceived aspect of this great composer.

By the beginning of 1917 the War had taken a great toll of Russian lives and material. In the third winter of war, the distribution of essential supplies was chaotically corrupt: a general strike led to workers being shot, but the Russian army was now very different from that which fired on demonstrators in January 1905. Many soldiers sympathised with the strikers, and the Guards regiments mutinied on March 12th. A week before, Rachmaninov had premiered the complete Opus 39 Etudes Tableaux for solo piano in Petrograd, but the march of events towards the October Revolution was inexorable.

In October, the Rachmaninov family returned to their Moscow home. It was the time of the Bolshevik offensive but—surprisingly enough, given Rachmaninov’s history of demanding peace and quiet in which to work—living in the thick of revolutionary fervour, he began work on a long-shelved ambition, the far-reaching recomposition of the First Piano Concerto. The new version was completed in Moscow on November 23rd, with the sounds of insurrection surrounding him: the Bolsheviks had taken control of the city eight days before. By then the district of Moscow in which Rachmaninov lived had been formed into a collective and he was obliged to attend local meetings of the revolutionary council and join the civil guard. Five days after finishing the revision of the Concerto, Rachmaninov had completed three further solo piano works, which were possibly part of a projected set of miniatures. But within a month the Rachmaninovs had fled Russia, and his career as a composer was abandoned for years.

The three pieces—Oriental Sketch, Prelude in D minor, and Fragments—remained virtually unknown during his lifetime, only the first being played by Rachmaninov, (and then only fourteen years later in New York). The manuscript of the D minor Prelude was deposited after his death in the Rachmaninov archives of the Library of Congress in Washington. It was untitled, and given the name by which it is now known when it was published some years ago. Although the three pieces are recognisably by Rachmaninov, and are certainly not worthless, one can discern in their elliptical utterance that more laconic and less overtly emotional character that was a feature of the composer’s post-Revolutionary music. The Prelude has a simple theme, of hypnotically repeated Fs above an undulating chromatic movement that recalls the second subject of the opening movement of the D minor Sonata: a contrasting middle section also recalls another D minor masterpiece, the end of the first movement of the Third Piano Concerto, but in view of the close proximity of this work to the revised version of the First Concerto, there is the faintest recollection of the slow movement of that work in this piece. The original version of the First Concerto was completed in July 1891, and a few days later Rachmaninov composed the Prelude in F major, dating the manuscript August 1st. Curiously, this Prelude reflects material from the Concerto, also the slow movement, yet it was first published not as a piano work but as the first of the Two Pieces for cello and piano, Op 2. It is a brief, delicate piece, not without charm, and certainly deserving of performance.

There remains one final Prelude by Rachmaninov for piano: in E flat minor, it comes from his second extant work, one of the Four Pieces (Romance, Prelude, Mélodie and Gavotte) written as a student, and possibly dating from 1888 or 1889. This group is a set and should be heard as such: for that reason it is not included here but will be found on the record ‘Rachmaninov: The Early Piano Works’ (CDA66198).

Robert Matthew-Walker © 1983

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