All Music Guide
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Sergei Rachmaninov 24 Preludes Piano Sonata No.2
Rachmaninov was a gifted enough pianist when young to be taken under the wing of the eminent Russian teacher, Zverev, before completing his studies with one of Liszt's favourite pupils, Alexander Ziloti. But his real interest lay in composition. As a student of Arensky and Taneyev he won the coveted gold medal of the Moscow Conservatoire at nineteen, with the one act opera Aleko among his test pieces. On graduating from the Conservatoire he was immediately offered a contract by the publisher Gutheil, and also received much encouragement from Tchaikovsky. As Rachmaninov himself put it 'I composed as I spoke, and often my hand could hardly follow the swift flight of my musical ideas.' It was thus the most traumatic moment of his life when his Symphony No.1 in D minor proved a total fiasco at its premiere in St Petersburg. The composer was then only twenty-four, and for almost three years he was hardly able to write another note. 'I felt like a man who had suffered a stroke, and for a long time had lost the use of his head and hands', was his subsequent admission. Eventually his friends persuaded him to visit a certain Dr Dahl, a hypnotist of remarkable powers. Having ascertained that the Philharmonic Society in London was hoping for a concerto from the young Russian, Dr Dahl repeated the same formula to his patient day by day as he lay half asleep in an armchair: 'You will begin to write your concerto... you will work with great facility... the concerto will be of excellent quality'. The Piano Concerto No.2 was in fact completed in 1901, and its success sufficiently re-opened the floodgates for Rachmaninov to decide to devote the whole of the next two years to composition (a rich relative was fortunately able to provide the necessary financial help). The Cello Sonata, the Spring Cantata, the 12 Songs (op.21), the Variations on a Theme of Chopin, and the 10 Preludes (op.23) were all part of this exciting new creative upsurge.
After the publication of his Op.23 in 1904, Rachmaninov recalled his famous C sharp minor Prelude (second of a set of little pieces published as his Op.3 when he was only nineteen) and began to consider adding another thirteen preludes to the existing eleven so as to make a complete set of twenty-four encompassing all the major and minor keys - as Chopin had done over half a century earlier. The remaining thirteen pieces eventually emerged in 1910 as his Opus 32. Most of the twenty-four are longer and more texturally complex than Chopin's Preludes, with an unmistakably Russian (though not nationalistic) intensity in their pride and protest, their nostalgic yearning and idyllic dreams. Nevertheless, Chopin's influence, even if not specifically the Chopin of the Preludes, cannot fail to be noted at least in the earlier of Rachmaninov's two sets.
Although many of Rachmaninov's works for piano achieved instant popularity (the Concerto No.2 and the C sharp minor Prelude, for example), the Sonata No.2 still remains relatively unknown. The composer started work on it in Rome in the spring of 1913, simultaneously with his cantata The Bells; he was staying in the very apartment ' in the Piazza di Spagna where Tchaikovsky had composed during his many visits to Rome with his brother Modest (librettist of Rachmaninov's opera Francesca da Rimini) and this must certainly have stimulated the flow of creative juices. Both works were completed during the summer at the Rachmaninov country estate of Ivanovka. The sonata's kinship with The Bells is evident above all in the frequent occurrence of bell-like sonorities (the sound of Russian church bells haunted Rachmaninov throughout his life). Typical of Rachmaninov too is his use of a 'motto theme', in this case the first subject of the first movement, which recurs in both the Non allegro and the Allegro molto. In 1931 the composer substantially revised the sonata, making cuts and simplifying the piano texture so as to bring it in line with his current thinking in terms of keyboard style. Laudable as this may seem to some, others prefer the sheer sumptuous, sonorous bravura of the original version, and this is the one which is performed here.