Sergei Rachmaninov

Biography

Born: Apr 1, 1873; Russia   Died: Mar 28, 1943; USA   Period: 20th Century
Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninov, born in Semyonovo, Russia, on April 1, 1873, is today remembered as one of the most formidable pianists of all time and the last truly great composer in the Russian Romantic tradition. Rachmaninov came from a music-loving, land-owning family; young Sergey's mother fostered the boy's innate talent by giving him his first piano lessons. After a decline in the family fortunes, the Rachmaninovs moved to St. Petersburg, Read more where Sergei studied with Vladimir Delyansky at the Conservatory. As his star continued to rise, Sergei went to the Moscow Conservatory, where he received a sound musical training: piano lessons from the strict disciplinarian Nikolay Zverev and Alexander Siloti (Rachmaninov's cousin), counterpoint with Taneyev, and harmony with Arensky. During his time at the Conservatory, Rachmaninov boarded with Zverev, whose weekly musical Sundays provided the young musician the valuable opportunity to make important contacts and to hear a wide variety of music.
As Rachmaninov's conservatory studies continued, his burgeoning talent came into full flower; he received the personal encouragement of Tchaikovsky, and, a year after earning a degree in piano, took the Conservatory's gold medal in composition for his opera Aleko (1892). Early setbacks in his compositional career -- particularly, the dismal reception of his Symphony No. 1 (1895) -- led to an extended period of depression and self-doubt, which he overcame with the aid of hypnosis. With the resounding success of his Piano Concerto No. 2 (1900-1901), however, his lasting fame as a composer was assured. The first decade of the twentieth century proved a productive and happy one for Rachmaninov, who during that time produced such masterpieces as the Symphony No. 2 (1907), the tone poem Isle of the Dead (1907), and the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909). On May 12, 1902, the composer married his cousin, Natalya Satina.
By the end of the decade, Rachmaninov had embarked on his first American tour, which cemented his fame and popularity in the United States. He continued to make his home in Russia but left permanently following the Revolution in 1917; he thereafter lived in Switzerland and the United States between extensive European and American tours. While his tours included conducting engagements (he was twice offered, and twice refused, leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), it was his astounding pianistic abilities which won him his greatest glory. Rachmaninov was possessed of a keyboard technique marked by precision, clarity, and a singular legato sense. Indeed, the pianist's hands became the stuff of legend. He had an enormous span -- he could, with his left hand, play the chord C-E flat-G-C-G -- and his playing had a characteristic power, which pianists have described as "cosmic" and "overwhelming." He is, for example, credited with the uncanny ability to discern, and articulate profound, mysterious movements in a musical composition which usually remain undetected by the superficial perception of rhythmic structures.
Fortunately for posterity, Rachmaninov recorded much of his own music, including the four piano concerti and what is perhaps his most beloved work, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934). He became an American citizen a few weeks before his death in Beverly Hills, CA, on March 28, 1943. Read less
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 2 / Ardakov, Gibson
Release Date: 01/10/2011   Label: Royal Philharmonic Masterworks  
Catalog: 29210   Number of Discs: 1
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Rachmaninov: Symphony No 2 / Handley, RPO
Release Date: 09/14/2010   Label: Royal Philharmonic Masterworks  
Catalog: 28220   Number of Discs: 1
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Medtner: Sonata Romantica; Skazki; Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No. 2; Corelli Variations
Release Date: 09/09/2014   Label: Hyperion  
Catalog: 67936   Number of Discs: 1
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Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 2; Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade / Matsuev, Temirkanov
Release Date: 08/26/2014   Label: Euroarts  
Catalog: 75068   Number of Discs: 1
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Rachmaninov: The Complete Works [32-CD Set]
Release Date: 09/23/2014   Label: Decca  
Catalog: 002145102   Number of Discs: 32
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Work: Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3 no 2

 

About This Work
While Rachmaninov's early compositions divulge the influence of Tchaikovsky, this Prelude in C sharp minor foreshadows his later style and is one of his most masterfully crafted compositions from his student years. It was written, in fact, shortly Read more after he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, and dedicated to one of his teachers there, Arensky. Chronologically it came first in the group of pieces Rachmaninov composed for a set he entitled Morceaux de Fantasie. He placed it second among three other works, then added a fourth. The others in the set are Elegie (No. 1), Melodie (No. 3), Polichinelle (No. 4), and Serenade (No. 5).

The C sharp minor Prelude became popular immediately after Rachmaninov premiered it on October 8, 1892. He had to accommodate audiences at virtually every recital he gave thereafter by including it as an encore. Rachmaninov played it so often, in fact, that he grew tired of the piece.

The Prelude begins with ominous descending chords that lead to one of the composer's most melancholy and memorable themes. Its slow lilting character, conveyed in big gloomy chords, is reminiscent of tolling bells on a dark wintry night, an image which accounts for its nickname, "The Bells of Moscow." The theme offers no consolation in its dire gloom, but instead proceeds to proudly proclaim its beguiling pessimism. The middle section is restless and tense, not breaking the dark mood, but offering livelier and more driven music before returning to the chordal theme with doubled intensity.

In the end, despite damning judgments so often associated with short popular piano works, this piece must be considered one of the most perfect from Rachmaninov's early years and a masterpiece of the late nineteenth century keyboard literature. A typical performance of the Prelude lasts about four-and-a-half minutes. Today, it is rarely heard as part of the entire set of the Morceaux de Fantasie and is still programmed separately or as an encore. While it remains popular, it is performed far less than it was 50 or 100 years ago. Rachmaninov made an arrangement of it for two pianos in 1938.

-- Robert Cummings Read less

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