It’s hot and damp outside. As much as I like the sun, the heat today is oppressive. Inside it is fresh, calm, and I indulge a peaceful moment with nothing to do and nowhere to run to. What a relief! Since I work part-time, I am busy with all kinds of unpleasant household chores and I have come to deeply appreciate such moments. And as it happens, during my short break I enjoy Sergei Rachmaninov’s Preludes. What a delight! Perfectly suited to re-energize me with that.
Rachmaninov wrote his Preludes in three stages: A first a set of ten pieces (Op. 23) between 1901 and 1903, then a set of 13 pieces (Op. 32) in 1910 and a final work in 1917, just before he left the Soviet Union for good. The latter one was published only in 1973, on Rachmaninov’s 100th birthday. The composer had written in 1892 as a student a first prelude and, according to the biographer Max Harrison, “it is unlikely that Rachmaninoff had any thought in 1892 […] of writing a complete set covering all keys*, as Chopin and others had done. Yet by ten years later [when he had started to write Op. 23] the idea had struck home and there is a careful alternation of major and minor that continues in Op. 32 until all 24 keys had been dealt with.”
Saying good-bye to home
It didn’t take me long to single out may favourites, once I had listened to a beautiful recording by Boris Berezovsky: From Op. 23 it is No. 5 in G minor, No. 8 in A flat major and No. 10 in G flat major, from Op. 32 No. 2 in A flat minor, No. 4 in E minor, No. 10 in B minor and No. 12 in G sharp minor. And then there is the Prelude in D minor, written in 1917, which is not on Berezovsky’s recording but on another recording of the 24 Preludes by Dmitri Alexeev, which I can also recommend warmly. Prelude in D minor feels like a good-bye, melancholic, dramatic, a hint of fear – exactly as I would feel if I had to exile myself for political reasons.
Harrison sees a previous work, Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin (Op. 22), as a precursor to the first set of Preludes, but he considers the Preludes as “more precisely focused, with greater depth of feeling, diversity of expression, of pianistic devices, of variety of inventions as the main point.” If I wouldn’t know that Rachmaninov had enormous hands compared to mine – I manage with much effort the span of an octave – I would start to study some Preludes of Op. 32 right away.
Now, if you want to spend a calm moment, take a deep breath and relax, if you want to admire beauty, elegance and perfect pianistic craftmanship, listen to these recordings and feel the music inside yourself. Rachmaninov like Bach, Mozart and Schubert revitalize me instantly, and I can only hope that they have the same effect upon you.
© Charles Thibo