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ClassicsOnline Home » RACHMANINOV: Etudes-Tableaux, Opp. 33 and 39
"Biret weaves a magic spell behind each piece"
"crisp articulation, bold chordal phrasing, deft pedalling, some carefully graded voicing of inner parts"
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873 - 1943)
Etudes-tableaux, Op. 33 Etudes-tableaux,
Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninov was born
at Semyonovo in 1873. His family, one of strong military traditions on both his
father's and mother's side, was well-to-do, but the extravagance of his father
made it necessary to sell off much of their land. Rachmaninov's childhood was
spent largely at the one remaining family estate at Oneg, near Novgorod. The
reduction in family circumstances had at least one happier result. When it became
necessary to sell the estate at Oneg and to move to St. Petersburg, the expense
of education for the Imperial service proved too great. Rachmaninov could make
use, instead, of his musical gifts, entering St. Petersburg Conservatory at the
age of nine as a scholarship student.
Not a particularly industrious student
and lacking the attention that he needed at home, in 1885 Rachmaninov failed
his general subject examinations at the Conservatory and there were threats
that his scholarship would be withdrawn. His mother, now separated from his
father and responsible for the boy's welfare, arranged that he should move to
Moscow to study with Zverev, a teacher of known strictness. In Zverev's house,
however uncongenial the strict routine, he acquired much of his phenomenal
technique as a pianist, while broadening his musical understanding by attending
concerts in the city .At the age of fifteen he became a pupil of Zverev's
former pupil Ziloti at the Conservatory, studying counterpoint and harmony with
Sergey Taneyev and Arensky. His growing interest in composition led to a
quarrel with Zverev and removal to the house of his relations, the Satins.
In 1891 Rachmaninov completed his piano
studies at the Conservatory and the composition of his first piano concerto.
The following year he graduated from the composition class and composed his
notorious prelude in C sharp minor, a piece that was to haunt him by its
excessive popularity. His early career brought initial success as a composer,
halted by the failure of his first symphony, conducted badly by Glazunov,
apparently drunk at the time, and reviewed in the cruellest terms by César Cui
who described it as a student attempt to depict in music the seven plagues of
Egypt. Rachmaninov busied himself as a conductor, signing a contract with the
Mamontov opera company. As a composer, however, he suffered from the poor
reception of his symphony and was only enabled to continue after a course of
treatment with Dr. Nikolay Dahl, a believer in the efficacy of hypnotism. The
immediate result was the second of his four piano concertos.
The years before the Russian revolution
brought continued successful activity as a composer and as a conductor. In 1902
Rachmaninov married Natalya Satina and went on to pursue a career, that brought
him increasing international fame. There were journeys abroad and a busy
professional life, from which summer holidays at the estate of Ivanovka, which
he finally acquired from the Satins in 1910, provided respite. All this was
interrupted with the abdication of the Tsar in 1917 and the beginning of the
Rachmaninov left Russia in 1917. From
then until his death in Beverley Hills in 1943, he was obliged to rely largely
on performance for a living. Now there was very much less time for composition,
as he undertook demanding concert tours, during which he dazzled audiences in
Europe and America with his remarkable powers as a pianist. His house at
Ivanovka was destroyed in the Russian civil war, and in 1931, the year of the
Corelli Variations, his music was banned in Russia, to be permitted once more
two years later. He spent much time in America, where there were lucrative
concert tours, but established a music publishing house in Paris and built for
himself a villa near Lucerne, where he completed his Paganini Rhapsody
in 1934 and his Third Symphony a year later. In 1939 he left Europe to
spend his final years in the United States.
The first group of Etudes-tableaux,
Opus 33, was written in the summer of 1911. It originally consisted of nine
pieces, the fourth of which was withdrawn and revised to become the sixth of
the later set of Etudes-tableaux, Opus 39.
The third and fifth were published
posthumously, so that the first published set contained only six pieces. Of
these all but two are in minor keys. The first, in F minor, proceeds in solemn
march rhythm, suggesting, in its conclusion, a mere hint of Rachmaninov's
recurrent idée fixe, the opening notes of the Dies irae of the
Latin Requiem Mass. The C major second Etude soon touches on the more
melancholy minor, as it unfolds, leading to a third, in an initial C minor,
that later provided material for the Fourth Piano Concerto. Opus 33 No.5,
fourth Etude-tableau of the later published Opus 33, refers in its opening to
the first of Rachmaninov's two piano sonatas, and is based largely on a figure
harmonically associated with the French horn. The fifth of the series is in E
flat minor, the stillness of its conclusion interrupted by the strong opening
of the sixth, in E flat major. The melancholy G minor of the seventh of the
group leads to a final C sharp minor Etude, in a key and with an opening figure
that suggest the well known Prelude in the same key.
The Etudes-tableaux published as
Opus 39 were written in 1916 and 1917 and make very much greater demands on the
performer. Only the last of the nine Etudes is in a major key. The first of the
group, in C minor, demands immediate virtuosity and is followed by a dramatic A
minor Etude that again has suggestions of the Dies irae. Its gently
poetic conclusion leads to a fierce F sharp minor burst of activity. The
energetic fourth Etude, in B minor, leads to a passionate E flat minor and a
dramatic A minor Etude, revised from its original version in the first
set of studies. The poignantly tragic C minor seventh Etude is succeeded
by the eighth, in D minor, while the whole series ends with the strongly marked
rhythms of the D major conclusion of the ninth of the studies. The title Etudes-tableaux
suggests, of course, some pictorial or extra-musical inspiration. Rachmaninov,
well enough known in later life for a certain taciturnity, seems not to have
divulged their origin.
Born in Ankara, Idil Biret began piano
lessons at the age of three. She displayed an outstanding gift for music and
graduated from the Paris Conservatoire with three first prizes when she was
fifteen. She studied piano with Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, and
composition with Nadia Boulanger.
Since the age of sixteen Idil Biret has
performed in concerts around the world playing with major orchestras under the
direction of conductors such as Monteux, Boult, Kempe, Sargent, de Burgos,
Pritchard, Groves and Mackerras. She has participated in the festivals of
Montreal, Persepolis, Royan, La Rochelle, Athens, Berlin, Gstaad and Istanbul.
She was also invited to perform at the 85th birthday celebration of Wilhelm
Backhaus and at the 90th birthday celebration of Wilhelm Kempff.
Idil Biret received the Lily Boulanger
Memorial Fund award (1954/1964), the Harriet Cohen/Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal
(1959) and the Polish Artistical Merit Award (1974) and was named Chevalier de
l'Ordre du Merite in 1976.
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RACHMANINOV: Etudes-Tableaux, Opp. 33 and 39