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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Complete Piano Music

Howard Shelley
recorded from 1982 to 1991
HYPERION 8-CD set CDS44041/8

Total duration: 7hrs 28 mins




This is a long file divided into the following segments:

  1. Brief description of contents of each of the eight CDs
  2. Introduction
  3. Howard Shelley
  4. Review of each CD including full CD content detail

Brief content description of each of the eight CDs

CD1:
Morceaux de Fantaisie Op. 3 (1892)
Ten Preludes Op. 23 (1903)
CD2:

Morceaux de Salon op. 10 (1893/4)
Moments Musicaux op. 16 (1896)

CD3:

PiaNo. Sonata No. . 2 in B flat minor op. 36 (1913) original version
Morceaux de Fantaisie in G minor (1899)
Three Nocturnes (1887/8)
Four Pieces (?1888)
CD4:

Thirteen Preludes op. 32 (1910)
Prelude in F Major (1891)
Prelude in D minor (1917)
CD5:

Etudes Tableaux Op. 33 (1911)
Etudes Tableaux Op. 39 (1916/17)
CD6:

Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor op. 28 (1907)
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor op. 36 (1931) revised version
CD7:

Variations on a Theme of Chopin Op. 22 (1902/03)
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42 (1931)
Melodie in E major Op. 3 No. 3 (1940) revised version
CD8:

TRANSCRIPTIONS:
Rimsky-Korsakov – The Flight of the Bumblebee
Kreisler – Liebeslied
Bizet – Minuet from L’Arlésienne Suite No. 1
Schubert – Wohin?, from Die schöne Müllerin
Mussorgsky – Hopak from Sorotchinsky Fair
Bach – Prelude, from Violin Partita in E Major
Bach – Gavotte from Violin Partita in E Major
Bach – Gigue from Violin Partita in E Major
Rachmaninov – Daisies Op. 38 No. 3
Mendelssohn – Scherzo from ‘A Midsunmmer Night’s Dream’
Rachmaninov – Lilacs, Op. 21 No. 5
Behr – Polka de V R
Tchaikovsky – Lullaby Op. 16 No. 1
Kreisler - Liebesfreud

Introduction

These recordings were issued in an 8-CD box set in 1993 bringing together recordings made between 1978 and 1991 which are still available separately. I had heard one or two of them over the years and had been impressed but it has only been over the last few weeks that I have realised an ambition and had the opportunity of listening to the full set.

I was greatly impressed.

I had known that, over the years, many of my fellow reviewers had been equally won over by Shelley’s poetic, refined readings that consistently demonstrate his complete empathy with Rachmaninov’s idiomatic style. Nicholas Rast, for instance, singled out this set for inclusion in the ‘Instrumental’ section of BBC Music Magazine’s Top 1000 CDs Guide (BBC Worldwide Publications, 1998). Shelley’s recordings also had excellent reviews in the Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and Gramophone’s Classical Good CD Guide.

What struck me immediately when I began to assess this 8-CD set was the insightful notes by Robert Matthew-Walker, especially his introductory heading: ‘Rachmaninov’s solo Piano music – the need for reassessment’. In this introduction, Matthew-Walker reminds us that Rachmaninov’s reputation rests mostly on the four Piano concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody. Little else was known, virtually every other work ignored after his death in 1943 until the 1973 celebrations of the centenary of Rachmaninov’s birth, when interest in his symphonies, operas and chamber and recital music was rekindled. Of his solo piano music perhaps, only his famous Prelude in C sharp minor (one might say infamous in that he was haunted by it and expected to play it as an encore at so many of his recitals) remained well known.

It is interesting, too, to note how the Russian Revolution marked a watershed in the composer’s life and how his priorities had to shift in consequence. In the 26 years from 1891 to 1917 Rachmaninov composed 39 works with opus numbers, but during the remaining 26 years of his life he added only six more. In exile, from 1917 to 1943 he had to support his family and so an exhausting round of recitals claimed much of his time that might otherwise have been devoted to composition. But then, for a good part of this period, he felt himself out of joint with the times and intimidated by the new fashions in musical styles.

Rachmaninov was of course famed as a virtuoso pianist of legendary accomplishment. As a pianist he had no peer. His music written for solo piano understandably has considerable technical insight. But Rachmaninov’s piano writing is certainly not empty display, it was never written just for effect. There is great subtlety and artistry in every piece – music of the highest calibre.

Comparing these Shelley recordings with those of Rachmaninov *, one is impressed with how Shelley so closely identifies with Rachmaninov’s idiomatic style. Here, consistently, is virtuosity of a very high order together with refinement and elegance, wit, expressive power, beauty and poetry. There is subtlety of light and shade, dynamics and expression. There is considerable thought and eloquence given throughout even extending to the pauses. Take just one example. Listen to the amazing sensitivity and technical skill in Shelley’s playing of the Prelude No. 5 in G major from the Op. 32 Thirteen Preludes - the conjoining of multiple ripple patterns so lucidly and so lovingly portrayed.

[* RCA’s 10-CD set (RCA Victor Gold Seal 09026 61265 2) ‘Sergei Rachmaninov - The Complete Recordings’ published in 1992 comprised recordings of Rachmaninov, himself, as soloist in his Four Piano Concertos and Paganini Rhapsody, and, as conductor, of his Third Symphony and the Isle of the Dead; plus solo Piano recordings of music by many composers – as well as some of his own compositions including three of his Etudes Tableaux (in C and E flat from Op. 33 and in A minor from Op. 39) and eight Preludes including three recordings of that famous one in C-sharp Minor that haunted so many of his recitals.]

Howard Shelley

For complete biographical details of Howard Shelley I would refer readers to his agent’s web site – www.carolinebairdartists.co.uk/html/cbartists.htm

Howard Shelley is not just renowned as a concert pianist (especially celebrated as an interpreter of Rachmaninov par excellence) but also as a conductor with the London Philharmonic, London Symphony and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras and many other orchestras throughout the world. He has held positions of Associate and Principal Guest Conductor with the London Mozart Players in a close relationship of over twenty years and he has toured with them across the globe. Shelley has also been Principal Conductor of Sweden’s Uppsala Chamber Orchestra and works closely with Camerata Salzburg. He has worked with many other chamber orchestras.

He has made many recordings for Chandos, Hyperion and EMI including this award-winning set of Rachmaninov’s complete solo Piano music, plus Rachmaninov’s concertos, plus series of Mozart, Hummel, Mendelssohn, Moscheles and Cramer concertos as well as all Gershwin’s works for Piano and orchestra and a series of British concertos including Alwyn, Bridge, Howells, Rubbra, Scott, Tippett and Vaughan Williams.

 
The Reviews

Howard Shelley plays the complete Piano Music of
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
HYPERION CDS44041/8
CD1:

Morceaux de Fantaisie Op. 3 (1892)
No. 1 Elégie in E minor
No. 2 Prelude in C sharp minor
No. 3 Mélodie in E major
No. 4 Polichinelle
No. 5 Sérénade in B flat minor
Ten Preludes Op. 23 (1903)
No. 1 in F sharp minor
No. 2 in B flat minor
No. 3 in D minor
No. 4 in D major
No. 5 in G minor (1901)
No. 6 in E flat major
No. 7 in C minor
No. 8 in A flat major
No. 9 in E flat minor
No. 10 in G flat major
recorded on 15, 16 September 1982, 19 April 1983
HYPERION CDS44041 [59:34]
Available separately on HYPERION CDA 66081

Appropriately, one might think, this first CD kicks off with Rachmaninov’s five-piece Morceaux de Fantaisie of 1892. The set includes that Prelude in C sharp minor a piece that was to haunt him throughout his career as a virtuoso pianist. It was composed, the first of the set, in 1892 for the 19-year-old composer-pianist’s professional debut. It was to become his most internationally famous composition and travelled the world with him. 1920s New York even had a jazz version played by the Paul Whiteman Band, which incidentally Rachmaninov enjoyed. It certainly spread the fame of the young composer, so much so that by the time he reached his late twenties, he was known to a large international public. On the other hand, its immense popularity came to be a curse to him when he became a touring virtuoso; so many audiences insisted on hearing it as an encore. Howard Shelley’s thoughtful reading plumbs its depths, the opening section suggesting some dark, mysterious tragedy before the grand theme defiantly asserts itself.

The C sharp minor Prelude is the second of the five Morceaux de Fantaisie, dedicated to Arensky. Heard together, they demonstrate an impressive emotional range. The opening piece is an eloquent, heart-felt ‘Elégie’, the ‘Mélodie’ with its plaintive ostinato is tenderly romantic, the whimsical ‘Polichinelle’ points towards the bombast and the bravura romanticism of the Piano concertos, and the Spanish-like ‘Sérénade’ is attractively pensive and slightly melancholy. Shelley delivers very characterful readings that delight the ear and stimulate the imagination.

The Ten Preludes include two popular favourites: the attractive proud melody and flowing romanticism of No. 2 in B flat minor, and the splendour of the assertive No. 5 in G minor with its meltingly lovely trio that surely equals anything in the concertos.

The first of the Preludes in F sharp minor is beautiful, sylvan, dreamy; the enigmatic No. 3 in D minor is slightly assertive and vaguely militaristic; Nos. 4 in D major and 6 in E flat major return to tenderness and dreams with yet more touching melodies enchantingly and most poetically played. Nos. 7 in C minor, 8 in A flat major and 9 in E flat minor have rippling chords in common; although pleasant enough, they do not reach the same level of inspiration as the others in the set. The lovely final Prelude in G flat major is a deeper creation, bitter-sweet and nostalgic.

CD2:

Morceaux de Salon op. 10 (1893/4)
Nocturne in A minor
Valse in A major
Barcarolle in G minor
Mélodie in E minor
Humoresque in G minor
Romance in F minor
Mazurka in D flat major
Moments Musicaux op. 16 (1896)
Andantino in B flat minor
Allegretto in E flat minor
Andante cantabile in B minor
Presto in E minor
Adagio sostenuto in D flat major
Maestoso in C major
recorded on 11, 12 April 1985
HYPERION CDS44042 [56:17]
Available separately on HYPERION CDA66184

Rachmaninov’s Morceaux de Salon, composed during December 1893 and January 1894, were conceived during a period of depression and consequently the inspiration tends to be second-drawer.

The opening ‘Nocturne’ quotes from Tchaikovsky’s ‘memorial’ Trio, written in memory of Nicholas Rubinstein. It is a curious piece beginning in melancholy and shifting to a rhythm that is hardly associated with a Nocturne or lullaby for it almost canters rather than gently rocks. The pieces are deemed ‘salon’ and the beginning of the second ‘Valse’ seems to confirm this description but the piano writing soon becomes so decoratively complex and so virtuosic that the music is elevated above the genre. As Robert Matthew-Walker observes "… in the relative major, [it] exhibits a ghostly textural reminiscence of Chopin’s A flat major trio." Shelley makes the rippling waters of the comparatively well-known ‘Barcarolle’ glisten. The Mélodie follows logically on from the ‘Barcarolle’ the Piano musing over the ripples before the melody broadens out to a more overt statement of its beauty. The playful ‘Humoresque’ is full of joie-de-vivre with a touch of poignancy. ‘Romance’ is more inhibited and elusive, a poem of regret. The final item is a ‘Mazurka, the longest piece of the set at nearly five minutes, is brash and confident, majestic and fiery.

The Moments Musicaux are all related using a theme stated at the outset of the ‘Andantino’. It has a haunting, magical quality, and a sense of remoteness and loss. It seems almost improvisatory and for much of its span one might easily visualise an unrelenting but varying pattern of pattering rain on the still surface of a lake. This patterning is discernible too in the following ‘Allegretto’ but a definite romantic idea emerges and there is material and atmosphere reminiscent of the Piano concertos. The ‘Andante cantabile’ is a song of Slavonic melancholy, wholly Russian, a very slow variation, deliberate and almost funereal. The ‘Presto’ is a deluge of left-hand sextuplets against a rising quasi-militaristic idea; while the lovely rocking ‘Adagio’ is a gentle sweet contemplation. The final ‘Maestoso’ surges majestically with the theme intricately woven into florid passage-work.
CD3:

Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor op. 36 (1913) original version
Morceaux de Fantaisie in G minor (1899)
Song Without Words

Piece in D minor (1917)
Fughetta in F major (1899)
Fragments (1917)
Oriental sketch (1917)
Three Nocturnes (1887/8)
No. 1 in F sharp minor
No. 2 in F major
No. 3 in C minor
Four Pieces (?1888)
Romance in F sharp minor
Prelude in E flat minor
Mélodie in E major
Gavotte in D major
recorded on 17, 18 July 1985
HYPERION CDS 44043 [59:36]
Available separately on HYPERION CDA66198

Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata in B flat minor was written at the same time as The Bells, in Rome where he had taken his family for a six-month sojourn in 1912/13. The first movement, at one point, actually suggests tolling bells. It is a kaleidoscopic and capricious movement: it glitters, it dances, it is pensive, it postures, there is a hint of a cake-walk and syncopation and it echoes the bravura sections of the Third Piano Concerto

The sweet reveries of the second movement enchant. As Robert Matthew-Walker in an untypical flight of fancy describes it thus (he does not mention whether this is his visual interpretation or that of the composer): "It is a quiet summer’s day in Southern Russia, with the butterflies gently fluttering against the rich colours of the motionless roses and lilacs in full bloom, the grass warmed with haze, the earth full yet No. t damp underfoot." This is one of Rachmaninov’s loveliest slow movements. The finale is bursting in energy and again there are echoes of the fiery sections of the Third Piano Concerto. Rachmaninov would revise this B flat minor Second Sonata in 1931 (see review of it on CD 6)

The remainder of CD3 comprises shorter pieces. First three separate miniatures lasting just over one minute each: the swiftly moving and rippling Morceau de Fantaisie in G minor (1899) was the first work completed by Rachmaninov after the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony; Song Without Words is a much earlier little gem (1887), sentimentally lyrical; and Piece in D minor is even earlier (1884) but shows an impressive early assurance, swift and romantic. Fughetta in F major is nicely classical, poised and lucid. Fragments comes from the period in the weeks immediately before Rachmaninov fled Russia and the Bolshevik revolution. It has all the nostalgia for a way of life gone for ever. Oriental Sketch from the same period refers No. t to the geographical region but to the Orient Express, Kreisler thought the repeated-note figure reminded him of that great train.

Rachmaninov’s Three Nocturnes in F sharp minor, F major and C minor respectively are from 1887/8 and they are all sweetly melodic although they are hardly restful through much of their length, in tempi and dynamics. The CD closes with Four Pieces dating from about 1897. These are little gems too. The opening ‘Romance’ shares the same key and tender utterances as the First Piano Concerto; the ‘Prelude’ is a tussle between a repeated melodramatic figure and a more relaxed gentle melody. Mélodie has one of those gorgeous melting Rachmaninov tunes and the final Gavotte charms.
CD4:

Thirteen Preludes op. 32 (1910)
No. 1 in C major
No. 2 in B flat minor
No. 3 in E major
No. 4 in F minor
No. 5 in G major
No. 6 in F minor
No. 7 in F major
No. 8 in A minor
No. 9 in A major
No. 10 in B minor
No. 11 in B major
No. 12 in G sharp minor
No. 13 in D flat major
Prelude in F Major (1891)
Prelude in D minor (1917)
recorded on September 17 and 18 1982 and 20 April 1983
HYPERION CDS44044 [48:13]
Available separately on HYPERION CDA66082

Rachmaninov’s group of Thirteen Preludes Op. 32 of 1910 followed on from his Third Piano Concerto premiered in New York the year previously and the Liturgy of St John of Chrysostom. The whole set was completed within nine days in the summer (he wrote three of them on August 23rd). Hurried they may have been, but these Preludes are top-drawer Rachmaninov. As a result of this concentrated activity, maybe, the pieces show an organic unity. It is however interesting to note, as Robert Matthew-Walker observes in his programme note, "how the composer recalls the C sharp minor the begetter of the entire set of Preludes, in the pervasive cell, and uses much of the material from the first to be written (No. 5) in the remaining twelve."

That haunting, dream-like Prelude No. 5 in C minor is delectable. Howard Shelley bestows magic upon its gently coruscating ripples and serene lyricism. If I had to pick but one piece from this entire 8-disc set, this would have to be my choice. The other 12 preludes cover a wide variety of tempi, rhythms and moods: the dainty ballet-like figures of No. 2 in B flat minor; No. 3 in E major’s bell-like figures and the bold material reminiscent of the Piano Concertos; the tenderly romantic waltz that is No. 9 in A major; the swiftly-moving restlessness of No. 8 in A minor; the folk-like quality of No. 11 in B major and the deeply-felt sorrow and fervour of No. 13 in D flat major. Then there is the heart-felt pathos and passion of the most extended Prelude (at just over six minutes), No. 10 in B minor. Another piece that haunts.

This fourth CD is rounded off with two more Preludes. The pretty Prelude in F Major was composed two weeks after completing his First Piano Concerto. It muses on material from the slow movement of that Concerto but, interestingly, it was first published not as a piano work but as the first of Two Pieces for cello and Piano . Listening to it, I was struck by how much it reminded me of the piano music of the English composer, John Ireland. The Prelude in D minor from 1917 was written shortly before Rachmaninov had to flee his homeland and maybe here we can detect a note of regret for the passing of the old order?
CD5:

Etudes Tableaux Op. 33 (1911)
No. 1 in F minor
No. 2 in C major
No. 3 in C minor, Op. posth.
No. 4 = Op. 39 No. 6
No. 5 in D minor, Op. posth.
No. 6 in E flat minor
No. 7 in E flat major
No. 8 in G minor
No. 9 in C sharp minor
Etudes-Tableaux Op. 39 (1916/17)
No. 1 in C minor
No. 2 in A minor
No. 3 in F sharp minor
No. 4 in B minor
No. 5 in E flat minor
No. 6 in A minor
No. 7 in C minor
No. 8 in D minor
No. 9 in D major
recorded on 19 and 20 April 1983
HYPERION CDS44045 [58:50]
Available separately on HYPERION CDA66091

The very title Etudes-Tableaux suggests extra-musical subjects but ‘tableaux’ in this context, should be interpreted as meaning the rather indefinite ‘character’ rather than the definite ‘picture’. Rachmaninov observed: "I do not believe in the artist disclosing too much of his images. Let them paint for themselves what it most suggests."

Nevertheless we know that, in 1930, Rachmaninov provided Ottorino Respighi with some sort of programmatic guide to enable the Italian composer to orchestrate five of these Etudes-Tableaux. Some might argue that Rachmaninov’s visualisations were somewhat contrived, and visualised after the pieces were composed. (The first set of nine Etudes –Tableaux were composed in 1911 and the second set 1916/17. Three of the original set were removed one, No. 4 being revised in 1916, and incorporated (as No. 6 ) into the second set; Nos. 3 and 5 from the first set were found after the composer’s death and reinstated into the first set.

The Etudes-Tableaux contain many typical Rachmaninov fingerprints. So, rather than tire the reader with repetitive comments on all 17, I shall restrict myself to commenting on a representative selection including the five that Respighi orchestrated. No. 1 of the Opus 31 set begins assertively in march rhythm before a delicate rippling theme of considerable nostalgic beauty tries to break through the harshness. In No. 2 that pleading beauty is caught dancing in lonely remoteness. No. 3, published posthumously, is much more solemn, pensive; then a defiance that is washed away by tender, quiescent ripples before a heart-on-sleeve melody, reminiscent of those of the Piano Concertos, enters to beguile the ear. The next, No. 4 is one of Rachmaninov’s call-to-arms but with soothing gentle asides. Pressing on to No. 7 in the set, and the only Op. 33 Etude Tableau that Respighi orchestrated, Rachmaninov suggested a scene at a fair and there is certainly, in the piano original, a jolly rowdiness about. No. 8 is another reflective piece of sylvan pellucid beauty.

Respighi orchestrated four of the nine Op. 39 Etudes-Tableaux. Rachmaninov’s wife suggested pictures of seagulls and the sea for No. 2. On hearing it, one is immediately reminded of Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead and his idée fixe, the Dies irae. Both the Rachmaninov piano original and the Respighi orchestration are powerful and evocative. The Rachmaninov visualisation of No. 6 was the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood and the brusque heavy opening piano chords certainly suggest the wolf and the contrastingly plaintive little heroine. No. 7, the most extended of all the Etudes Tableaux drew an untypically detailed description for Respighi from Rachmaninov: "Let me dwell on this a moment longer. I am sure you will not mock a composer’s caprices. The initial theme is a march. The other theme represents the singing of a choir. Commencing with the movement in semiquavers [sixteenth notes] in C minor and a little further on in E-minor, a fine rain is suggested, incessant and hopeless. This movement develops, culminating in C minor – the chimes of a church.

The finale returns to the first theme, a march." The imagination might suggest the funeral of a great man, mourners hunched against the rain. The piano intimates all of this and Respighi’s imaginative orchestration seems to substantiate such a picture.

Respighi’s orchestration of No. 9 was based on Rachmaninov’s visualisation of his final Etude-Tableau as something of an oriental march and perhaps a fairground and again the piano original is equally evocative of such a scene.
CD6:

Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor op. 28 (1907)
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor op. 36 (1931) revised version
HYPERION CDS44046 [57:09]
rec. 24 and 25 January 1982
Available separately on HYPERION CDA66047

In November 1906, Rachmaninov deciding that he needed to have a break from the tensions of social unrest in Russia and the responsibilities of conducting at the Bolshoi, settled with his family in Dresden. It was here that he worked simultaneously on three works: his opera Mona Vanna, the Symphony No. 2 and the First Piano Sonata. With CD6, of this set, we arrive at this latter work, the most extensive and most formidable of his solo Piano works. Howard Shelley rises magnificently to its considerable challenges realising its symphonic stature and bringing poetic sensibility to the lovely slow middle movement as well as strength and stamina in the outer movements of this masterpiece of Piano writing that spans some 37 minutes. Rachmaninov said that the Sonata’s three movements were suggested by Goethe’s Faust portraying Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles and the flight to Brocken as in Liszt’s Faust Symphony. The daintiness and vulnerability of the central movement clearly suggests the femininity of Gretchen and there is wry humour in the early sections of the fiery and passionate Finale, so full of Mephistopholean strutting and mockery. Incidentally the closing section of this Sonata’s Finale alludes, somewhat appropriately, to the composer’s idée fixe, the Dies irae

Rachmaninov’s revision of his Second Piano Sonata (originally written in 1913.) lightens its texture and tightens its arguments thus:-

1st Movement 2nd Movement 3rd Movement.

Original version 11:19 7:36 7:21

Revised version 8:01 5:57 5:41.


[The original version is on CD 3 of this set and reviewed in the appropriate section above.]

Opinions vary as to the effectiveness of the revisions. Rachmaninov, himself, passing judgement on the original version said, "So many voices are moving simultaneously, and it is too long ..." Rachmaninov’s close friend Horowitz felt that the 1931 revision was too thorough-going. Rachmaninov concurred and suggested that Horowitz might like to produce a version himself. Robert Matthew-Walker suggests pianists today are more like to be drawn to the first version but both have merits and they should both be considered. The opening movement music, in the revised version differs in character. For instance the bell-like passages seem to be emphasised more strongly while the cake-walk-like figures and syncopations are evened out somewhat. The essential character of the lovely central movement is maintained and, I think, enhanced.

 
CD7:

Variations on a Theme of Chopin Op. 22 (1902/03)
Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42 (1931)
Melodie in E major Op. 3 No. 3 (1940) revised version
HYPERION CDS44047 [51:42]
rec. November 1978
Available separately on Hyperion CDA66009

These two sets of solo piano variations are from opposite ends of the composer’s career. The Chopin Variations was Rachmaninov’s first big solo piano work. The theme is one of Chopin’s Opus 28 Preludes. The Corelli Variations was his last original work for solo Piano . In this instance, the theme, interestingly, is not by Corelli, but rather an anonymous tune known as ‘La Folia’ used by Corelli in a work of his own. The Chopin Variations have echoes of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and the Corelli Variations are not unlike the variations of the famous Paganini Rhapsody for Piano and orchestra composed three years or so later.

The form of the Chopin Variations is of interest. The 22 variations are grouped

irregularly, giving an outline of a four-movement sonata. (First movement: variations 1 to 10; second movement: variations 11 to 18; the ‘scherzo’: variations 19 and 20; and the ‘Finale’: variations 21 and 22. In most cases, each variation is longer than its predecessor giving the impression of a cumulative journey of wholly organic growth. The final 22nd variation has a duration, in Shelley’s recording, of just over 5 minutes.

After the grandiose statement of the theme, the opening three variations proceed in Bach-like classicism; the single-line first variation becoming the counter-subject for the second and canonic material for the third. Classicism melds beautifully with typical Rachmaninov ‘heart-on-sleeve’ romanticism in these variations. Throughout these variations Rachmaninov exhibits an assure mastery of large-scale structure.

The Corelli Variations is dedicated to Fritz Kreisler, who introduced the theme (see above) to Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov had recorded Sonatas by Beethoven, Grieg and Schubert with Kreisler. Compared with the Chopin Variations this work is leaner and seems to have been conceived in one sweep. The Corelli Variations are set in Rachmaninov’s favourite key of D minor. The first 13 variations share this key and they culminate in a cadenza in D flat major. As in the Paganini Variations, this key is the emotional heart of the work. D minor returns, for the four variations before the coda building up to a fiery conclusion.

Howard Shelley delivers bravura performances of both sets of variations, poignancy and delicacy with the utmost clarity in the fastest passages and steeliness in the more bombastic
CD8:

Rimsky-Korsakov – The Flight of the Bumblebee
Kreisler – Liebeslied
Bizet – Minuet from L’Arlésienne Suite No. 1
Schubert – Wohin?, from Die schöne Müllerin
Mussorgsky – Hopak from Sorotchinsky Fair
Bach – Prelude, from Violin Partita in E Major
Bach – Gavotte from Violin Partita in E Major
Bach – Gigue fronm Violin Partita in E Major
Rachmaninov – Daisies Op. 38 No. 3
Mendelssohn – Scherzo from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
Rachmaninov – Lilacs Op. 21 No. 5
Behr – Polka de V R
Tchaikovsky – Lullaby Op. 16 No. 1
Kreisler - Liebesfreud
recorded on 20, 2l and 22 February 1991
HYPERION CDS44048 [45:48]
Available separately on HYPERION CDA66486

In Rachmaninov’s youth learning the classics via piano transcriptions was the norm. In those pre-radio, pre-gramophone days, one learnt largely by playing; concerts were rare events. Rachmaninov, therefore, regarded transcriptions as a normal part of music-making. Some editions of his own later works, thought to be transcriptions (e.g. ‘Daises’ and ‘Lilacs’) are in fact the original versions.

All Rachmaninov’s transcriptions are of a very high technical and artistic order.

All are faithful to the spirit and character of the originals but with added dimensions of atmosphere and dramatic evocation. The writing is often very elaborate, and the chord clusters dense, challenging all but the most virtuosic pianists. Howard Shelley rises to their challenges with aplomb delivering readings full of dash and sparkle and sensitivity.

Rachmaninov’s first transcription for solo piano, written at the time (September 1900) when he was undergoing psychotherapy with Dr Dahl, was the ‘Minuet’ from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite No. 1. Howard Shelley plays Rachmaninov’s second transcription of this work made some twenty years later, published in 1923. He makes the music trip along lightly and merrily through the staccato rhythms and eloquently through the pride and languor of the middle section.

Shelley’s reading of the Schubert Die schöne Müllerin makes the mill waters swirl and shine while suggesting the emotional turmoil of the lovesick boy; while the transcription of Mussorgsky’s Hopak is a swift-moving, bombastic virtuoso showcase..

The Bach transcriptions are wonderfully lucid, late romanticism lying compatibly side-by-side with classical purity. Shelley’s Prelude is a model of clarity and elegance, and his Gavotte refined and dainty with a hint of wry humour.

The Flight of the Bumblebee is ‘busyness’ personified. Rachmaninov’s most famous transcription - of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo - has always been popular. The two sophisticated Kreisler transcriptions are delicious, lovely, lilting and sensual. Howard adds poetry and charm to the delicate, pellucid beauty of the Tchaikovsky Lullaby. The Behr Polka is a charming glittering salon trifle – something of the world of operetta.

Lilacs and roses adorned the gate leading to the front door of Rachmaninov’s country estate at Ivanovka . Their image must have meant a great deal to the composer especially during his years of exile. The two transcriptions of Rachmaninov’s own works are delectable. Both fragrantly evocative: dainty ‘Daisies’; and the ‘Lilacs’ (originally a song) arpeggios suggest lines of nodding lilacs swaying in a breeze. [There was also a ‘White Lilac Lady’ an admirer who sent Rachmaninov a bouquet of the flowers; yet they never met.]


Ian Lace



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