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CD Review

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Complete Études-Tableaux

  • 8 Études-tableaux, Op. 33 (1911)
  • 9 Études-tableaux, Op. 39 (1916-17)
  • Vocalise, Op. 34/14 (trans. Wild)
  • Fritz Kreisler: Liebesleid (trans. Rachmaninoff)
  • Rimsky-Korsakoff: Flight of the Bumble Bee (arr. Rachmaninoff)
Barbara Nissman, piano
Pierian 31 72:59
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Mood and more.

Rachmaninoff, one of the great piano virtuosos of the past century, wrote a ton of music for his own use. Other than two of the four piano concerti and two of the preludes, very little of it gets played, for reasons mainly of timidity from impresarios and the music public, neither of which want to take a chance on unknown quantities. So unknown quantities tend to stay unknown. The two sets of Études-tableaux occupy a sort of middle ground. A-list players with an interest in Rachmaninoff – like Ashkenazy, Laredo, and Shelley – tend to perform them, but I can't say they've become anything like ubiquitous, even to the extent of Scriabin's piano music and certainly not like that of Chopin or Liszt, to name Rachmaninoff's two obvious models. No surprise, but I've never heard even one in live concert.

The seventeen pieces come in two sets, written within five years of one another. Both sets show Rachmaninoff's uncanny ability to capture a specific mood. The general title ("studies-pictures") hints at the composer's intentions. In effect, Rachmaninoff wants these works to do double duty: studies on some technical aspect of piano playing, as well as miniature tone poems. In certain cases, we know what Rachmaninoff had in mind. Respighi wanted to orchestrate some of them and asked, and the Russian answered. Chopin's études – to my mind, the peak (with Debussy's) of the genre – manage (again, like Debussy's) to make art out of technical issues. Most études are simply chores, like scales or virtuosic cotton candy. Rachmaninoff's have the opposite problem. They're wonderful music, but concentrate no more on the "technical," most of them, than any of his other difficult solo piano music. You need a great technique to get through them, but they in themselves won't give you that technique. All but two of the pieces in each set are in ternary (A-B-A) form. The others are in binary (A-B). All but two are in minor keys. The major differences come down to foundation and scope. The Op. 33 sounds more like Chopin. The Op. 39 takes off from Liszt. Op. 33 is more concentrated (it runs two-thirds the length of its sibling), Op. 39 more elaborate and obviously bravura.

Some of the problems in playing Rachmaninoff stem from the fact that Rachmaninoff was such a great player himself. Often, he doesn't seem happy if a finger isn't occupied striking a key. There's a lot of filigree that has to be tamed like frizzy hair before the musical shape of the piece begins to make sense. Others arise from a complex musical personality, a mixture of poet, master-musician, and intellectual. However, the music also attracts with a mixture of animal energy, full sonorities, and a melting lyricism.

Op. 33 opens with a bound out of the gate. The second seems haunted by winds, like a seashore on a gray day. The third begins freighted by complex sorrows, with complex harmonies. This mood gives way to a gorgeous song-like passage, such as you'd find in either the second or third piano concerto. The fourth is a rough hopak – Rachmaninoff in one of my favorite veins. A figure runs through it that reminds me of the first movement of Tchaikovsky's "Winter Dreams" symphony. The fifth, one of the more Chopinesque, reels off presto roulades of notes. Number six depicts a fair. Lovely and lively in itself, it nevertheless disappoints me a little, mainly because I've heard Stravinsky's Shrovetide Fair. Still, it's a brilliant bit of piano-writing. Poignant open fifths accompany another sad lyric tune, characteristic of the composer. The set ends with an elaborate, almost Lisztian declamation, with Rachmaninoff – playing different registers off one another – trying his very best to turn the piano into an orchestra.

Op. 39 (whose sixth étude the composer intended for Op. 33) is altogether more intricate, fuller, and more detailed. If anything, the mood becomes even darker than in the earlier set. I love Op. 33, but in Op. 39, I get the impression that Rachmaninoff has upped his game. The separate pieces strike deeper within me. I sense a more complex personality behind the music. I can feel no "wall of influence" (like Chopin) between the composer and me. Even though the pieces make use of Lisztian bravura, these works come across as direct from the composer's mind and psyche. The Op. 33 set use sparer means and seem to me more reserved.

Rachmaninoff begins the new score with a roar, in mood similar to something like Chopin's "Revolutionary" étude. He follows this with a reflective, nocturne-like seascape describing sea (mostly in a rolling, shore-lapping accompaniment with ties to the "Dies irae" chant that flits through so much of the composer's output) and seagulls (wheeling about in the upper reaches of the keyboard). The third stamps about angrily and frenetically. The fourth sounds like a cross between a hopak and a gavotte. It's not especially deep, but its sheer musicality and abundant inspiration suck you in anyway – light music from a genius. After this, the fifth comes as somewhat of a surprise, full of Romantic passion and high seriousness.

Rachmaninoff admitted to Respighi that #6 told the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, which he had read to his daughter. The composer usually avoided program music, and, I think, with good reason. His imagination wasn't really stirred by the physical or by drama. For example, his operas, although extremely polished, I find very weak affairs dramatically. Here, if you didn't know the story, you wouldn't have guessed. Even knowing the story, you don't necessarily see it unfolding in the music. Growling runs in the bass represent the wolf, of course, and a flighty flight of notes in the soprano represent the fleeing heroine. That's about as specific as the music gets. However, as an abstract piece of music that plays off these two themes, it's a honey. Rachmaninoff is indeed a composer full of drama, but it's inner, not stage, drama.

The longest in either set, the seventh étude, according to Rachmaninoff, describes a funeral – a solemn march, the weeping of the mourners, incessant, lightly falling rain, and the peal of church bells. Barbara Nissman's liner notes relate this to the death of Scriabin (the piece is contemporaneous with Op. 33). In #8, the Scriabin tribute becomes more apparent, as Rachmaninoff's theme morphs into a quote from Scriabin's Piano Sonata #5 at the end. The harmonies also take a bit from Scriabin. The composer described the final étude as an "oriental march." I see the march part, but not the "oriental." To me, it's really another stylized hopak, with a Chopinesque hymnal middle.

As a touring pianist, Rachmaninoff needed encore pieces and bonbons, although extremely polished ns and, lucky for us, provided them for himself. The Kreisler "Liebesleid" is as Viennese-y (to quote Ira Gershwin) as Schnitzel. It also allows you to wallow in fabulous piano writing. "The Flight of the Bumble-Bee" transcription does its predictable job of getting your jaw to drop. Turnabout is fair play, and Nissman's program ends with Earl Wild's transcription of Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise," one of the most beautiful melodies he ever wrote, and that's saying something.

This is the second volume of two Rachmaninoff programs. The first contains the preludes. I haven't heard the first, but I love Nissman's playing on this second disc. In fact, I just love her playing, period. She has the flashy fingers and power the music demands, but she's also got brains and elegance. For me, the ha-ha Rachmaninoff digs for his interpreters is that the music can get lost in all the notes. The ink level in a toner cartridge can dip significantly after you print one of his pages. Nissman never loses the main line of the music, and she maintains absolute control over the dynamic of each level of musical activity. Furthermore, she has an adult, poetic sensibility. Rachmaninoff needs both. You can't have either an arid maturity that sucks the ardor of the music or poetry that dissolves into goo. The subtle differences she mines in her approaches to the two different sets particularly illuminates the multiple layers of the composer's artistic personality. She reaches the top without going over, and she's a master of mood. In her hands, these works become more than guilty pleasures. The only guilt you might feel is how much you might have underrated them before you heard her. Just listen to her in a sweet like the "Vocalise" and marvel at how she turns treacle into classic beauty.

She's better at Rachmaninoff than most of the big names. In fact, she's one of the great postwar pianists. Why she hasn't had the major recognition she merits, I can't tell you, although I could speculate just as wildly as the next person. I've just received a recital series of her work, multiple discs from Pierian (6 have been recorded; 10 are planned), and I'll be reviewing them shortly. Her range astonishes me.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.