Strong virtuosity and intelligent virtuosity mark pianist Prjevalskaya’s sojourn into Rachmaninov variations.

RACHMANINOV: Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22; Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42 – Marianna Prjevalskaya, p. – Fanfare Cincinnati FC-008, 51:30 (6/10/16) [Distr. by Naxos] *****: 

Marianna Prjevalskaya (b. 1982), gold medal winner of the 2013 Cincinnati World Piano Competition, performs (rec. 20-24 July 2015) two sets of Rachmaninov variations, each respectively a testament to the composer’s love for Chopin and Liszt.  Prjevalskaya recorded these Rachmaninov works in the Robert J. Werner Recital Hall at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

The more neglected of the sets, those composed in 1902-30 on Chopin’s c minor Prelude from Op. 28, presents a major challenge to composer, interpreter, and audience alike. What may appear as a relatively static piece – rather a study in gradations of tone – become via Rachmaninov’s sense of tone-color and harmonic exploration, increasingly complex, increasing their depth and vertical density. A large song-form in structure, the variations fall into three broad sections: 1-10, which share the c minor tonality; 11-18, which exploit lyrical and contrapuntal aspects of the music’s potential; and 19-22, which close the large arc of the concept, having moved by circuitous routes – including the famed D-flat Major of the later Paganini Rhapsody – to a triumphant C Major.

Prjevalskaya certainly displays her capacity to make tone, evoking any number of erotic possibilities in the music, rife with harmonic color. She indulges in a rubato natural both to Chopin and Rachmaninov. The Variation 11 draws exotic color from Prjevalskaya, given the composer’s shift to the relative major of E-flat to release a more optimistic ethos. The Lento of Variation 16 suggests a splendid nocturne closer to Scriabin than to Chopin, and likely a gravitational point for this pianist’s next explorations. With the Grave of Variation 17, Rachmaninov exacts heavy, tolling bells from his keyboard, soon moving into A Major at Variation 19 (Allegro vivace). The danger of all this – the constant percussive effects – can be a deadening militancy which has tended to restrain the popular appeal of the work. Prjevalskaya softens the blows with her fleet Variation 20, a “snowflake” etude that precedes one more glorious nocturne, Andante, at Variation 21. Its Vivo coda in swirling and massive chords leads to the Maestoso of the extended final, C Major variation, in which Chopin of the polonaises makes his ardent presence known. The militant character often strikes a tone that we hear in the opening of the Second Suite for Two Pianos, Op. 17.  Prjevalskaya makes us feel that the colors somehow owe debts to Schumann here, particularly his Symphonic Etudes. The blazing coda asserts that Prjevalskaya yearns to turn this finale into a concerto.

Rachmaninov composed his Corelli Variations in d minor in 1931, utilizing the La Folia of Arcangelo Corelli that comes to us through Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody. Conceived in four thematic or developmental groups, the piece reveals a cyclical pattern, returning to the original key and closing with the tune as a postlude. Whereas the Chopin Variations treat the theme in the manner of a Liszt paraphrase, the Corelli relies on the original theme verbatim. Often, the variants appear as individual character sketches, preludes, or etudes-tableaux, confirming the Schumann influence from his Symphonic Etudes. Still, there are decisive touches that belong to Rachmaninov, like the martial staccati in the Allegro scherzando (Variation X) and the jaunty thrusts in Variation XII, which remind us the “Little Red Riding Hood” etude in Op. 39. Variation V arrests us with the composer’s idiosyncratic open fifths and octaves. The dynamic range of the variants intensifies over the course of evolution, despite the composer’s lack of confidence that led him to dismiss several of the variations: he never played the entire work in performance. The Intermezzo section – between XIII and XIV – marks a transition point, once more anticipating Rachmaninov’s own romantic key, D-flat Major. The Allegro con brio (XVIII) is pure Schumann, conceived perhaps after another round at that composer’s Papillons. There might be a touch or two from Liszt’s Wilde Jagd etude. The Piu mosso (XX) has Prjevalskaya at her most alluring in sound and touch, moving to the resigned Coda (Andante) of one of Rachmaninov’s more cogent, intellectually and digitally gratifying scores. Solid piano sound reproduction comes to us via recording engineer, editor, mixing and mastering engineer, Chelsea Crutcher.

—Gary Lemco