Rachmaninov Liner Notes
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

'The great Russian artists were immersed in gloom, but they had the strength to accept it and rest themselves through this gloom, for they believed in the light.' - Alexander Blok

Given the opportunity to meet a composer from the past, my choice would undoubtedly be Sergei Rachmaninov; not only because his music has had a tremendous impact on me emotionally since my early years, but also because of his enigmatic personality. Rachmaninov was a very private, introverted man, a characteristic that seemed to increase with age, and he confided only in a few intimates. Even from almost 1,000 letters of his personal correspondence, one will find it hard to gain a glimpse inside the 'six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl', as Stravinsky reputedly referred to him. He rarely expressed his inner feelings in words, and dreaded interviews, for 'all I feel and experience is told far better, more clearly and truthfully in my compositions', as Rachmaninov's daughter Irina Wolkonsky once overheard her father saying.

Despite his social aloofness, his music always communicates at a deeply personal level and goes to the very root of human emotion. That might be the reason why his compositional style changed comparatively little over the years, in contrast with the world and fashion, but also why he was, and to a large extent still is, one of the most misunderstood composers of his period. Undeserved terms like 'Hollywood composer' and 'kitsch music' were often associated with his compositions, which makes one wonder whether his works have suffered more from the 'wrong' type of hype in the long run rather than from the severe criticisms which caused him to have a mental breakdown and prevented him from composing for prolonged periods. His music has been used in almost fifty Hollywood films, and many film and Broadway composers openly admit that they have imitated Rachmaninov's style and melodic patterns; but the fact remains that he never wrote a single note for Hollywood. Moreover, we are privileged to have Rachmaninov's own recordings of many of his pieces, which should at once mitigate any doubts regarding the true value and seriousness of his works. The wide division of opinions between many critics or musicologists and the general public, even today, has always somewhat bothered me. The former frequently complain that in his compositions, he calculatedly provokes schmaltzy reactions from mainstream audiences, as well as what has been described as 'ecstatic expressivity leading to an almost orgiastic excitement'.

Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op.22

To appreciate fully the scope of Rachmaninov's music at its best and to be released from any potential preconceptions, however, it is exciting to penetrate beyond his 'hits' (such as the Second Piano Concerto and certain Preludes); then one will be rewarded with an infinite variety of qualities appealing to both the heart and mind. The set of Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op.22, is one such piece. Not often played, and overshadowed by the more popular sets of variations on the themes of Corelli (which was in fact not Corelli's theme, but an ancient Portuguese dance melody La Folia) and Paganini, the Chopin variations offer musically and technically boundless possibilities for exploration. For the most part, this can be ascribed to the piece's fundamental 'weakness': from an initial glance at the score, it is much less obvious how certain interpretational choices are supposed to be negotiated in the Chopin variations than in most of Rachmaninov's other works. Because the variations are a relatively early work, one would naturally expect to find Tchaikovsky's influence, but this is not at all the case. Some variations seem very Schumannesque, not only in their direct mode of expression but also in their richly colourful piano part-writing.

Rachmaninov began composing the Variations and the Preludes, Op.23, in the summer of 1902 at the family estate in Ivanovka, a special place of tranquillity in Rachmaninov's life where he was at his most productive, shortly after returning from a lengthy honeymoon abroad. The variations (like a much shorter set by Busoni) are based on Chopin's famous C minor Prelude, Op.28 No.20, and were premièred by the composer on 10th February 1903 at a concert for the Ladies' Charity Prison Committee in Moscow, to very little critical acclaim. The repetitions in the melodic line and, particularly, what was regarded as the piece's excessive length were the major sources of criticism at the time. As always deeply affected by criticism, Rachmaninov decided to make variations VII, X, XII and the coda optional for performance (I have omitted the fugue-like twelfth variation and the coda, which destroys the tranquil atmosphere of the previous meno mosso section). Apparently in fifteen concerts he never played the set of Corelli variations in its entirety and one can only wonder whether in performance of the Chopin set, which enjoyed much less popularity, he managed to get far beyond the theme!

The Chopin Variations are an intriguing curiosity, both musically and in their form. Structurally, they are grouped in such a way as to conceal a three-movement sonata (this becomes clear from the way the tracks on this disc are placed). Each variation grows longer as the work progresses and there is a gradual intensification throughout the 'movements'. Musically speaking, there is an extensive variety of moods: from the brooding, quite vicious frame of mind of variations III and IV to explosive thrusts of emotional rebellion - which nonetheless remain dignified (variations IX, XIX and XXII). An analogy of the kind of atmosphere intended here can be found in some of Chekhov's plays, which reflect the general mood and social trends, particularly that of the intelligentsia in Russia around the turn of the century. Variations XIII and XIV have an underlying sense of the familiar medieval chant Dies iræ (a theme associated with death) as a counter-subject (Variation XIII being remarkably similar to the fourth Corelli variation). Obsession with death and fatalism are notoriously embedded within the Russian mind (cf. the opening quotation) and, naturally, Rachmaninov had a particular obsession with them: two things he refused to discuss were death and harmony. His Isle of the Dead, inspired by Böcklin's eponymous painting, and the setting of Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Bells (when the hollow bells project their fateful theme: 'There is neither rest nor respite, save the quiet of the tomb'), or his song Fate (Sudba), Op.21 No.1, which is based on the famous opening motif of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, are only a few examples of these recurring themes throughout his oeuvre. But, as one writer has observed, Beethoven's fate may knock at the door, but Rachmaninov's kicks the door in.

More down to earth are variations VI, XVI and XXI, where the typically Russian, long-drawn-out song (protyaznaya pesnya) is introduced. Variation 16 is of special interest, detaching itself inconspicuously from the boundaries of the theme, which then ascends into a breathtaking, independent lyrical melody. It is the equivalent of variation XVIII in the Paganini Rhapsody, which was composed more than thirty years later, but whose D flat tonality it shares (despite the F minor key signature). The cross-rhythms of variations VI, VIII, XVIII and XXI, in which the complexity of rhythm is enhanced by more elaborate activity in the right hand, are of the kind with which Rachmaninov himself was especially comfortable as a performer. A distinct presence of the bell-sounds throughout the piece is another Rachmaninov speciality, whether they foretell death, reminiscent in variation XIII of the same B flats as in Ravel's Le Gibet, or the Marche funèbre (also in B flat minor) from Chopin's Second Piano Sonata, which had always a special place in Rachmaninov's repertoire.

In the last four, more extended variations - forming the last 'movement' - Rachmaninov boldly manages to break free from Chopin's restricting orbit and establishes a genuinely independent world of his own. Variation XIX begins with an abrupt change to the remote key of A major as the bells ring out again, but this time in festive celebration. In Variation XXI, in D flat, we find Rachmaninov at his finest and most memorable. It is a wondrous, lyrical interlude of calm, where the theme appears in the middle voice and in octaves above in canon, with a quasi-orchestral middle section. The final and longest variation, with its Schumannesque chords, is a gratifying release of the excitement built up throughout the piece, anticipating final salvation from the fateful C minor of the theme into the calming waters of C major.

The theme contains a controversial C major chord on the last beat in the third bar, which originates from Chopin's autograph of the prelude. Chopin later corrected the mistake, adding an E flat in a pupil's score, but numerous early editions duplicated it - including, evidently, Rachmaninov's score of the prelude. Or so I thought. An even greater controversy seems to me to be the absence of the E flat in the theme; the actual variations are in fact clearly based on the harmonic progression incorporating the E flat! That leads me to believe that the theme should in fact resolve to C minor, also in Rachmaninov's case, at the end of the cadence in the third bar, so that it corresponds harmonically with the variations.

Song Transcriptions

The genuine love and longing for mother Russia with its distinctive landscapes (wonderfully captured in Levitan's paintings), which lurks inside every 'true Russian', was always deeply imprinted on the core of Rachmaninov's personality and in the creative origins from which the emotions of his music stem. The unassuming rustling of the magnificent Russian birch trees, the penetrating scent of the blossoming lilacs and the wind caressing the golden flowering of wheat fields in Ivanovka would later all be greatly missed by Rachmaninov after he left his home country for good in December 1917; thereafter he developed the chronic nostalgia which is so evident in so much of his music.

What is so hard to describe in words is maybe best expressed through the medium of music, which is exactly what Rachmaninov did with the two transcriptions of his own songs recorded here. The original song Lilacs (Siren), Op.21 No.5, sets words by Ekaterina Beketova and paints a beautiful picture of nature combined with an unfulfilled search for happiness. Like the Chopin Variations, the song was composed during the summer of 1902; it was transcribed during the summer of 1913, when the original version of the Sonata was conceived. Despite the simplicity of the song, based almost entirely on a varied repetition of the three-note phrase with which the vocal line starts, it is one of Rachmaninov's most tender and intimate compositions.

The transcription is considerably more complex than the original song, more polyphonic, with cadenzas and a coda, which ultimately only serve to add colour and liquefy the texture, without disturbing the wonderfully tranquil mood.

The other song transcription is another nature painting: Daisies (Margaritki), from Op.38 No.3, made just two years after Lilacs. The original song is a setting of a charmingly naïve poem by Igor Severyanin. The vocal line adds its own counterpoint to the piano part, in which the fluent, chromatic accompaniment, with elaborate trills, underlines the image of the fluttering of the daisies' silken petals.

This transcription involved little alteration to the piano part. Though it is still lyrical, one can already sense a shift towards a cooler and more emotionally remote style, as found in the Second Sonata.

Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.36

'The sound of the church bells dominated all the cities of the Russia I used to know - Novgorod, Kiev, Moscow. They accompanied every Russian from cradle to grave, and no composer could escape their influence... This love of bells is inherent in every Russian.' - Sergei Rachmaninov

Rachmaninov sketched his choral symphony The Bells, Op.35, his own favourite work, and the original version of the Second Piano Sonata, Op.36, during his family's stay in Rome, completing the latter work back at Ivanovka in August 1913. The two works share their inspiration because the sonata, no less than the symphony, could also be easily called 'The Bells'; it translates their language directly into piano sonorities. Medtner described their hypnotic effect, which seems to have no parallels in the rest of the world, as musical instruments of extremely powerful, mysterious expression, capable of playing fully-harmonized melodies and achieving a sonority approached only by a full symphony orchestra.

The sonata has many similarities with the Third Piano Concerto, which Rachmaninov completed only four years earlier. They both have three interrelated movements which are played almost without interruption; in the outer movements, the two themes are in direct contrast with each other; and in each work we find the free treatment of a single idea in the middle section. The end of the sonata's first movement is quiet, as is that of the concerto, and a sudden launch into the last movement (attacca subito) is another common trait. There, the energetic first theme is contrasted with Rachmaninov's 'big tune' which makes its final appearance in all its glory towards the end of the piece. Also there is a notable similarity between the second subjects of the opening movements, where Rachmaninov improvises around the tonic chord. Consequently, one can easily classify Rachmaninov's melodies into two types: the expansive, flowing 'big tune', which is often responsible for some of Rachmaninov's finest moments, and the short, rhythmic type, which tends to linger around one note, like an insect around a flame. The latter is quite useful in a symphonic context (as Sibelius and Franck also found). One major difference from the concerto, however, is the more objective, emotionally cooler lyricism in the sonata (already present in Daisies and in the Op.34 songs).

Paradoxically, if one had the unlikely desire to dissect a piece analytically, one wouldn't need to look much further: the sonata offers a microcosm of organized, living musical material, which is cleverly interrelated, kneaded, compounded, augmented, inverted, transposed, juxtaposed, diminished and dehumidified, to say the least; it all forms part of a large-scale structure but, miraculously, is only composed of two main elements. The first element is stated in the imperious semiquaver-crotchet descending third right at the beginning of the second bar. Not only does it anticipate the accompanying figure that follows immediately in the right hand, it also outlines the bell-like melody of the second movement, that in itself is imprinted, again, with Dies iræ. The second element is the chromatic theme stated in the left hand in the beginning (which is also foreshadowed in the descending motto of the sonata at the very opening). This element later metamorphoses itself into the longing yet plaintive second subject of the first movement. The same theme is then recalled in the middle section of the second movement, disguised as a complex, ascending polyphonic web of material which accelerates into a somewhat hallucinogenic outburst of assorted bell-sounds. In addition, this element also shapes the descending semiquaver passage at the opening of the last movement and emerges at the end of the statement of that movement's first theme. So the piece is not exactly a classic case of simple chastity (structurally or otherwise)!

As with the Chopin Variations, the sonata enjoyed little critical success for a long time. The over-composed polyphony and the work's length both caused Rachmaninov great misgivings. So in June 1931, immediately after completing the Corelli Variations, Rachmaninov set about making some drastic revisions to the piece. Still under the influence of Corelli's lean style of writing, Rachmaninov not only cut 120 whole bars, but also many other notes and passages that he believed weren't absolutely essential. The new passages didn't exactly turn out to be easier to play, however, but his almost paranoid desire was to eradicate superfluity at all costs. The end product achieved greater clarity in some passages, but in the new version much of the sonata's massive, red-blooded rhetoric is lost and its substance crushed.

It was Horowitz, a great friend and admirer of Rachmaninov's, who came up with the clever idea of combining the best of the two versions into one piece. To his surprise, Rachmaninov endorsed the idea: 'Gorovitz', he said, 'you are a good musician. Put it together and bring it to me and we'll see how it is'. He did just that and Rachmaninov gave his approval. As I have mentioned, Rachmaninov himself enjoyed little public or critical acclaim with the sonata and it could have suffered the same fate as the Chopin Variations if it hadn't been for Horowitz, who had a nose for what the audience wanted and was, arguably, also chiefly responsible for the tremendous success of the Third Piano Concerto. Van Cliburn also reintroduced the work to Moscow audiences. Both artists blessed the sonata with the reputation it has today: as one of Rachmaninov's greatest piano works. Curiously, neither artist played the original or the revised versions, but they used their own unique mélange. Since then, it has become something of a cult to custom-design individual renditions of the piece but, in the end, there are only so many passages you can paste together. Unlike Horowitz, I first learned the revised version of the sonata, but was never satisfied with it. I felt that, although the original idea was thoroughly distilled, that which remained didn't have sufficient substance to create the impact originally intended by the composer. But I still liked certain passages and sections from the revised version and after a long search for the 'perfect' mixture, I decided to base my rendition closely on Horowitz's versions from a structural point of view (with some exceptions) - versions which varied marginally from concert to concert. In my view this solution incorporates the best of the two Rachmaninov editions.

Kreisler Transcriptions

'I am constantly troubled by the misgiving that, in venturing into too many fields, I may have failed to make the best use of my life. I have "hunted three hares". Can I be sure that I have caught one of them?' - Sergei Rachmaninov

Now, more than half a century after his death, we can confidently say that Rachmaninov proved himself to be very successful at hare-hunting. Furthermore, he may have even caught another hare: as a transcriber. During the golden era, nearly every performing artist composed and transcribed at some stage, but by no means everyone managed to achieve structural unity or genuine musical substance in their works. It was only Busoni and Rachmaninov who emerged as true worthy successors of J.S. Bach and Liszt - the great masters of concert transcriptions. Rachmaninov's transcriptions are special in a sense that he left his individual imprint on all of them. Not one of them can be said to be literal, even though only the two Kreisler transcriptions Liebesleid, transcribed in 1921, and Liebesfreud, composed in 1925, can be classified as fantasies or paraphrases.

Shortly after Rachmaninov's arrival in the United States, Kreisler had been among the first to visit him, and it seemed only natural that their growing mutual admiration should be expressed by Rachmaninov in the two transcriptions of Kreisler's most famous pieces, and by Kreisler, in return, in the violin arrangements of the theme from the slow movement of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto and the song Daisies. In his transcriptions, Rachmaninov takes Kreisler's charming, simple melodies (which ultimately sprang from Kreisler's own inimitably seductive playing) and seasons them, quite outrageously, with adventurous modulations, juxtaposing and ingeniously combining melodies in labyrinthine polyphony, adding introductions and codas, as well as cascading passages and theatrical silences. Thus the originals are transformed and moulded into something utterly original whilst retaining their warmth and Viennese-dance element. Café music? - I don't think so.

As the dying Romantic tradition came to be replaced by counter-movements where (particularly after Stravinsky) the expression of personal emotion in musical composition became unfashionable and even a taboo, should Rachmaninov then be viewed in the context of the time-line of music history and its ever-changing trends? For the most part, the emotional content derives from a strong logical and structural foundation embedded in the works, which makes the emotional effects even more penetrating. Such genuine emotion transcends passing fashion and is valid for all time. As Rachmaninov himself said: 'Music must first and foremost be loved, it must come from the heart and it must be directed to the heart. Otherwise it cannot hope to be lasting, indestructible art.'

© Yevgeny Sudbin 2005
Posted: Feb-8-2010
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