Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Composer series: Rachmaninoff

I have the Sydney International Piano Competition to thank for my obsession with Maurice Ravel. It was during the 2008 competition that I first heard a piece of Ravel which left a huge and lasting impression on me, and I've written a blog post about my discovery of that composer which you can find here.
At the time of writing, I'm thoroughly immersed in the 2012 SIPCA and once again this year's competition is gradually causing me to fall in love with another great composer whom a few years ago I knew very little about - Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Towards the end of 2011, I happened to hear Rachmaninoff's 2nd piano concerto, in quite an unusual context (I heard it in an art gallery as part of an installation.) Up until that point, I'd never particularly liked the piano concerto genre. Orchestral sound was, and still is, one of my least favorite musical textures, and to me a piano concerto was far too orchestral to be pleasant to listen to. But when I heard Rach 2 for the first time, I guess something about it must have resonated with me, because I became very interested in it.
I visited that art gallery while on a road trip to visit my grandfather in Brisbane, and while I was staying with him I found a CD of Rachmaninoff's 2nd piano concerto and played it. By this time, I'd decided quite firmly that I wanted to learn that concerto - I even told Grandad so! I can't remember what it was about Rach 2 that made such an impression on me at the time, but later when I was back in Melbourne I bought the 2-piano score.
So began my interest in Rachmaninoff.

This increased when I heard his famous C-sharp minor prelude on ABC Classic FM. They were promoting a CD of Ashkenazy playing the complete Rach preludes. Ashkenazy is one of my heroes, and I instantly fell in love with the music - in fact, I was quite astonished by it. I must have heard that famous prelude before as it seemed familiar, but perhaps I'd never really listened to it properly. I immediately decided to order the CD (I discovered when it arrived that the booklet contained some lovely pictures of a very young Ashkenazy!)

When I listened to the complete preludes, I was struck by their originality. No other composer sounds like Rachmaninoff, just like no other composer sounds like Prokofiev. I'd never heard anything like it, and it touched me in much the same way Ravel does - like I was hearing music that expressed exactly what was in my soul. Even the harmonies and textures that Rachmaninoff uses sometimes remind me of Ravel. And I'm intrigued by Rachmaninoff's very distinctive way of using chromaticism to create subtle, sometimes barely perceptible harmonic changes that somehow tug at your heart and make you feel like you're either falling into an endless abyss or floating up to heaven, depending on whether the modulation is descending or ascending.

Over these past few days I've heard a lot of Rachmaninoff in the Sydney International Piano competition, and all of it has left such an impression on me that since yesterday I've downloaded and printed out the entire Etudes-Tableaux, op. 33 and op. 39, and the entire Moments Musicaux! I followed the score when one competitor played the entire Etudes-Tableaux op. 33, which was very informative. I've also tried sight-reading some of the Etudes and most of the Moments Musicaux, which was great fun.

I feel like every piece of Rachmaninoff I've heard played by the competitors in these past few days is haunting me, just like Ravel's Une Barque Sur L'ocean haunted me after I first heard it in SIPCA four years ago. Listening to this competition is a wonderful, immersive experience during which a young musician like me can disover extraordinary new repertoire, and I'm looking forward to Round 4 when the competitors will play chamber music. I'm especially eager to hear the Ravel piano trio (which I can still remember Tatiana Kolesova playing, beautifully, in 2008) and Shostakovich's trio.

To finish, here are some of my favorite pieces of Rachmaninoff to date (including Rach 2, which I am now learning the middle movement of). This list will undoubtedly grow, as I'm still discovering Rachmaninoff's music. At the moment it's all piano music as you can probably tell! However, I'm currently waiting for a CD of the complete Rach symphonies to arrive in the mail...

2nd Piano Concerto
Etude-Tableaux Op. 39 No. 1
Etude-Tableaux Op. 39 No. 5
Etude-Tableaux Op. 39 No. 8
Etude-Tableaux Op. 33 No. 2
Etude-Tableaux Op. 33 No. 3
Etude-Tableaux Op. 33 No. 5
Etude-Tableaux Op. 33 No. 8 
Moment Musicaux No. 1
Moment Musicaux No. 2
Moment Musicaux No. 3
Prelude in B Minor Op. 32 No. 10
Prelude in G minor Op. 32 No. 12

Symphonic Dances - 1 
The Isle of the Dead
Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini
Symphony No. 1 - 4th mvt

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