RACHMANINOFF: Preludes and Elégie from Opp. 3, 23, and 32; Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Op. 42 – Vassily Primakov, piano [TrackList below] – Bridge 9348, 77:07 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Vassily Primakov shrewdly, I think, gives us not another run-through of the complete Rachmaninoff Preludes but a selection of the cream from Rachmaninoff’s three opus numbers together with the composer’s last work for solo piano, the Corelli Variations. This approach has the benefit of avoiding direct competition with classic recordings of the Preludes as well as providing an instructive overview of Rachmaninoff’s piano music, from the frilly Victorian Valentine cards of Op. 23 through the nigh-Impressionistic tone pictures of Op. 32 to the leaner and hungrier late style evinced in Op. 42. By programming Rachmaninoff’s most famous Prelude—his first, Op. 3 No. 2—last, Primakov brings us full circle, back to the fragrant Romanticism of Rachmaninoff’s early years.
The Op. 23 Preludes of 1901–1903 are contemporary with the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 18, and exhibit the heady Romantic sweep of that work, though the boldly militant Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23 No. 5, hints at a sterner more austere approach to come. While Rachmaninoff may have remained a late-Romantic composer to the end, only fitfully engaging twentieth-century musical trends, it’s instructive to hear the Op. 32 Preludes of 1910—still rich with filigree work like a gingerbread house— together with the much sparer Corelli Variations of l932, a sort of study for the Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43.
The title is a misnomer; while Archangelo Corelli did write a set of variations on the theme in his Violin Sonata Op. 5 No. 1, so did innumerable other composers of the Renaissance and Baroque. The theme is actually based on a slow dance of sixteenth-century Portuguese origin known as “La Folia.” In the nineteenth century, Salieri and Liszt, among others, still considered it fertile enough ground to write their own sets of variations on the tune. Rachmaninoff’s variations have that typical Slavic air of melancholy which is a constant in his music, but there is also a streamlining of the melodic and harmonic contours and, in the faster music, a willful drive that looks forward to the rhythmic impulsivity of later orchestral works such as the Third Symphony and Symphonic Dances.
So Primakov’s Rachmaninoff program becomes a useful study in the composer’s musical development. Fortunately, Primakov brings both imposing technique and fine musical sensibility to his performances. A student of Jerome Lowenthal, Primakov produces a similarly big tone and brings similar granitic solidity to Rachmaninoff’s grand chords. But Primakov is also a thinking pianist, as his convincingly organic approach to the complicated Corelli Variations shows. Pedaling and phrasing are sensitively handled, as is the all-important task of keeping Rachmaninoff’s complex melodic lines distinct. Add to this a fine sound recording from the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York and excellent notes by Malcolm MacDonald, and you have a disc worth adding to your Rachmaninoff collection no matter how many recordings of the famed Preludes it may include.
Prelude in B-flat major, Op. 23, No. 2
Elégie in E-flat minor, Op. 3, No. 1
Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, No. 12
Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5
Prelude in D major, Op. 23, No. 4
Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42
Prelude in E major, Op. 32, No. 3
Prelude in G major, Op. 32, No. 5
Prelude in E minor, Op. 32, No. 4
Prelude in B-flat minor, Op. 32, No. 2
Prelude in E-flat major, Op. 23, No. 6
Prelude in B minor, Op. 32, No. 10
Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2
— Lee Passarella
A rich reflections into Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre