The gift to be simple belonged to Serge Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) from his earliest maturity: the ‘Mélodie’ in E and even the bold outlines of the famous C sharp minor Prelude, both from the five Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3, published in 1892, already reveal the essence. In the drama of unfolding solo piano pieces, which reached a temporary halt in 1917, it is the pianist’s role to reveal the simple contours all too easily hidden in the expressive latticework of figurations. When it came to scale, though, the composer was afraid of overwhelming himself.
Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 28
He was worried that the First Sonata – begun in the Dresden annus mirabilis of 1907 alongside work on the epic Second Symphony and a Maeterlinck-based opera, Monna Vanna, which started out by pleasing him more than the other two projects but ended up abandoned – would be ‘wild and interminable... unbearably long’. From a similar concern, in 1931 he famously returned to the Second Sonata of 1913 – companion work to the orchestral / choral symphony he always loved best, The Bells – with the observation that ‘Chopin’s B flat minor Sonata lasts nineteen minutes, and all has been said’, consequently removing what he regarded as his own superfluities and excess of voice parts.
The First was one kind of paradoxically vibrant death-blow to late romanticism, though quite a different one to Richard Strauss’s Salome, which ‘completely delighted’ Rachmaninoff that same winter. He had in mind symphonic proportions – the work would have been orchestrated had it not turned out so pianistic – and a programme presenting ‘three contrasting types from a literary work’ which turned out to be Goethe’s Faust: a homage to Eine Faust-Symphonie by Franz Liszt, and perhaps even to that composer’s colossal B minor Sonata, in which many have detected a similar conflict.
Plot-wise, the three movements offer only general portraits and a departure from Goethe’s apotheosis in that this Faust, like that of Berlioz, is unredeemed at the end. But there is a suggestion of a chorale – perhaps offering the alienated doctor the religious salvation he rejects – shortly after the opening interval harping obsessively on D minor in the first movement. Further ecclesiastic echoes, the ones closest to Rachmaninoff, unfold in the winged B flat lyrical countersubject: the theme moves stepwise like the chastely intervalled znamenny, or sign, chants of the Russian Orthodox Church. But this had been a Rachmaninoff thumbprint from the early 1890s onwards, and governs the long-term thinking of the contemporaneous Second Symphony. Rising and falling scales conclude the basic argument: perhaps a legacy of their crucial role in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth (Pathétique) Symphony, which Rachmaninoff heard again in Leipzig, Nikisch conducting, in February 1907, and which prompted him to declare, ‘one can’t go beyond this’. They play a major role in the movement’s embattled development; in correspondence while working on the piece, Rachmaninoff, who seems to be struggling with his structure, asks a friend about the rondo as it operates in Beethoven’s piano works, but he ends up with sonata forms throughout.
While the winged B flat melody is subdued by D minor on its return, the first movement comes to rest, surprisingly, in D major, and a prayer of thanksgiving, the happier mood of which is then reflected in the opening of the slow movement. This shifts quickly to an F major which is treated as insistently as the first movement’s initial preoccupation with the dominating minor key of the work. But the radiance is soon clouded with more elaborate figurations and increased chromaticism.
The titan of the three portraits is announced by the double octaves and the satanic force of the opening of the finale: Mephistopheles, with flights of witches and a battle to the death, or to hell, soon unveiled in a sprung rhythmic treatment of the Dies Irae, the Latin hymn describing Judgment Day, which haunted Rachmaninoff, even more than it did Berlioz and Liszt, throughout his life. Echoing the progress of the first movement, a majestic E flat major – almost martial, as would be the parallel moment in the Third Piano Concerto, just two years in the future – gives way to lyricism. This time, as the material promises, the battle is metaphysical and culminates in colossal left-hand poundings. The chorale theme, present throughout, finally turns its back on hopes of redemption – though whether for Faust, or Mephistopheles, or a figure to be understood more autobiographically, will have to remain a mystery.
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36
Uniquely, Rachmaninoff did not give the first performance of his most complicated piano work; that honour fell to the deeply impressed Konstantin Igumnov (1873 – 1948), in Moscow, on 17 October 1908. The composer did premiere his Second Sonata, joint fruit with The Bells of the 1913 summer which he spent in the same flat in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna that Tchaikovsky had once occupied. Alas, he never recorded it, leaving it to other great pianists, such as Vladimir Horowitz, to set down their thoughts on interpretation – and Horowitz was one of many pianists since Rachmaninoff who have elected to perform a kind of composite version, poised midway between the original and the revision of 1931.
Xiayin Wang has chosen the option of Rachmaninoff’s own more compact revised version, in all its magnificent, logical thrust. If anything, this highlights the family resemblance between the descending chromatic figure launched by the left hand in the third bar of the first movement and its smoother incarnation in the 12 / 8 Meno mosso lyrical pause-for-thought later in the same movement, which is perhaps the sonata’s most striking idea. It ends the movement and, in the 1931 version only, rounds off the Lentopassage in the second movement, which lies at the heart of the work, bracketed by two meandering meditations. While the exposition and recapitulation of the Allegro agitato are substantially abbreviated, the developments of both outer movements remain more or less as they originally were, the first driving towards a peal of bells which directly evokes the world of Rachmaninoff’s beloved ‘choral symphony’. The finale is a vibrant cavalcade looking forward to the march which so exuberantly crowns the second set of Études-tableaux, Op. 39, from 1917, the composer’s last major work for piano solo until the ‘Corelli’ Variations, Op. 42, of 1931.
Nos 4, 5, and 6 from Preludes, Op. 23
We end with three earlier miniature masterpieces, from the first set of Preludes, Op. 23. No. 4 in D major, purest Andante cantabile, returns us to simplicity, opening up from chant-like steps as it reaches its largest phrase, and adding exquisite right-hand counterpoint to the second tracing of the melody. The striding march of No. 5 in G minor is one of Rachmaninoff’s most celebrated inspirazioni, with shafts of mysterious light falling between the processional episodes. The Andante, No. 6 in E flat major, offers another reverie, to complement the D major Prelude, but this time with a rather sphinx-like smile rising above the gentle left-hand waves, and a final dissolve that is in tune with the more enigmatic moments of the two sonatas in this programme.