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ClassicsOnline Home » RACHMANINOV: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2
Piano Sonata No 1 in D minor, Op 28
Piano Sonata No 2 in B flat minor, Op 36 (Original Version)
Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninov was among those Russian composers who chose exile, rather than remain in Russia after the Revolution of 1917, the consequent civil turmoil and, as it turned out, the years of despotic oppression that followed. He was born at Semyonovo in 1873 into a family of strong military traditions on his mother’s side and more remotely on his father’s. A tendency to extravagance had depleted his father’s fortunes, making it necessary to sell off much of their land and dissipating his wife’s dowry. As a result of this, the childhood of Rachmaninov was largely spent 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 this estate and move to St Petersburg, the expense of educating the boy 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 with a scholarship.
Showing no particular industry as a student and lacking the attention he needed at home, in 1885 Rachmaninov failed all his general subject examinations at the Conservatory and there were threats that his scholarship would be withdrawn. His mother, now separated from her husband and responsible for her son’s welfare, arranged, on the advice of one of her relations, the well-known pianist Alexander Ziloti, that the boy should move to Moscow to study in Zverev, a teacher known to impose the strictest discipline. In Zverev’s house, however uncongenial the rigorous routine, Rachmaninov acquired much of his phenomenal ability 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 student Ziloti, a musician who had also studied with Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Rubinstein and, thereafter, with Liszt. Rachmaninov had lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Sergey Taneyev and Arensky, and 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 the 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 at its first performance in 1897, when it was conducted badly by Glazunov, apparently drunk at the time, and then reviewed in the cruellest terms by César Cui, who described it as student attempt to depict in music the seven plagues of Egypt. Rachmaninov busied himself as a conductor, accepting an engagement in this capacity with Mamontov’s Moscow Private Russian Opera Company. He was only able to return to composition 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, a work that has proved to be one of the most immediately popular of all he wrote.
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 was bringing 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. During the war, however depressing the circumstances, he continued his concert engagements, not being required for military service, as he had anticipated. All this was interrupted by the abdication of the Tsar in 1917 and the beginning of the Revolution.
Rachmaninov left Russia in 1917. From then until his death in Beverly Hills in 1943, he was obliged to rely largely on performance for a living. Now there was, in consequence, 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 his Variations on a Theme of Corelli, his music was banned in Russia, after he had added his signature to a letter to the New York Times, drawing attention to the atrocities being committed by the then Russian government. The ban was withdrawn 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 Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 and his Third Symphony a year later. In 1939 he left Europe, to spend his final years in the United States.
In 1906 Rachmaninov conducted the first performances of his last two completed operas, The Miserly Knight, based on Pushkin, and Francesca da Rimini, for which Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest had provided a libretto. Resigning from his position as conductor at the Bolshoy Theatre, which he had joined in 1904, he took his family abroad for a holiday in Italy, returning to Ivanovka before moving in the autumn to Dresden. It was there that he worked on his Second Symphony and First Piano Sonata, while contemplating another opera, and was able to return to Ivanovka in the summer with the sonata completed. Rachmaninov had played the work through to friends in Moscow, but the first public performance was given by Konstantin Igumnov in Moscow in October, followed by further performances in November in Leipzig and Berlin. Igumnov had suggested certain changes in the sonata, which Rachmaninov seems to have accepted. The original intention had been to write a programme sonata, with movements that still might be heard as representing, as in Liszt’s Faust Symphony, Goethe’s Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles. It is possible to imagine, at least, something of this in the varied emotions of the first movement, the gentle lyricism of the second and the fiery ebullience of the last.
The Sonata in D minor, Opus 28, opens with a movement of some length and complexity. At the start there is a characteristic motif, a rising and falling fifth, that is to re-appear in the course of the work, with the chords that immediately follow. This, interrupted by a sudden rush of sound, precedes the first subject proper in material that, as Tchaikovsky had, makes considerable use of ascending and descending scales in its melodic contours. The second subject has a still greater part to play. This emerges from the surrounding figuration as a simple chant in B flat major, then to be heard in serene chords. The development, introduced by the opening motif, brings characteristic piano-writing and demands fro virtuosity, to be followed by a much shortened recapitulation that ends with a final excursion into the calmness of D major, with a concluding reminiscence of the opening motif. The serenity of the F major slow movement finds a place for a suggestion of this opening motif in its first theme. The music grown in intensity, leading to a brief cadenza and a passage that recalls the second subject of the first movement, before the return of the principal theme and key. The last movement, Mephistophelean in its technical demands, makes reference to what has passed, notably the opening motif, and varies sound and fury with passages of greater lyricism. The opening provides a turbulent first subject, to be contrasted with the dotted rhythm and sequences of a secondary theme, and the sonata ends with panache, remembering once more the motto theme with which the work had started.
In 1909 Rachmaninov undertook his first American concert-tour, from which he returned early in the following year, now to assume ownership of the estate at Ivanovka. There followed a further period of intense activity as a performer, conductor and composer. It was in 1913, during a holiday with his wife and children in Rome, that he started work on The Bells, inspired by the poem of Edgar Allan Poe, to be completed at Ivanovka and first performed that winter in Moscow. The same period saw the composition of the second of his two piano sonatas and the first performance by the composer of the sonata in Moscow in December. Rachmaninov revised the sonata in 1931, cutting 120 bars or so and rewriting and clarifying the texture of some passages, notably in the development section of the movements. The sonata was dedicated to the pianist Matvey Presman, director of the Rostov Academy, and a fellow-pupil with Rachmaninov in the house of Zverev. Presman’s dismissal in 1912 had led Rachmaninov in turn to resign from his position as vice-president of the Russian Musical Society. It was to Presman that, as a boy, he had dedicated his first attempt at composition.
The Sonata in B flat minor, Opus 36, in its original form makes heavier technical demands on a performer and includes extended passages of virtuoso piano-writing. The first movement opens with a bold assertion of the key of B flat minor and a descending fragment of melody which will appear soon transformed into the major tonality. There is a transition using characteristic dotted rhythms, followed, after a short cadenza, by the second subject, a gentle D flat major theme in a dotted compound rhythm almost suggesting a siciliano. It is in the development that Rachmaninov made the principle changes of the second version, perhaps occasioned by his concern, in 1931, about the state of his fingers, which threatened to make further performance difficult. The original development contains passages calling for considerable virtuosity and leads to an emphatic return of the principal key and of the descending melodic figure, soon to be followed by the return of the second subject in G flat major. It is with the descending melodic figure of the first subject that the movement ends. There is a tenderly descending modulation to open the second movement, leading from D major to the E minor Lento, a tenderly lilting theme based on a descending sequence. This leads to a romantic G major, with a return to the E minor theme bringing a dynamic climax. A place is found, in what follows, for reminiscences of the first movement, with the descending melodic figure of its first subject and an allusion to the gentler secondary theme. The movement ends with a return to the Non allegro with which it had opened, modulating now from the E major of the final section of the Lento to C major, and thence to the B flat major that starts the final Allegro molto. Here, as in all three movements, the revised version of 1931 made cuts, with passages sometimes completely rewritten. The opening thematic material is marked by a descending rush of notes, followed by strongly marked chords. There is typically romantic lyrical secondary material and both these elements are developed, before a final recapitulation, the three sections at once recognisable from the opening notes and marked chords with which they begin. The sonata ends with an emphatic and positive B flat major chord.
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RACHMANINOV: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2