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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1875-1943)
Études-Tableaux, for piano, Op. 33 (1911) [25:14]
Études-Tableaux, for piano, Op. 39 (1916/17) [39:57]
Nicholas Angelich (piano)
rec. 1994, no recording location given

On this Harmonia Mundi re-issue, part of the label’s Musique d’Abord series, American pianist Nicholas Angelich plays Rachmaninov’s two sets of Études-Tableaux.

Angelich studied at the Conservatoire de Paris and is now established on the international scene. I first came across him as a chamber musician on three marvellous Brahms recordings: first the Piano Trios released in 2004; second the Violin Sonatas in 2005 and third the Piano Quartets in 2008. For these Erato recordings Angelich collaborated with Renaud Capuçon (violin), Gautier Capuçon (cello) and Gérard Caussé (viola).

Sometimes described as miniature tone poems the set of Études-Tableaux, Op. 33 was composed in the summer of 1911 and the Op. 39 set in the autumn and winter of 1916/17. In between he wrote two completely different major works The Bells, Op. 35 and The All-night Vigil, Op. 37. These seventeen works fell within a period in which Liadov, Scriabin and Taneyev had all died.

A number of composers had written piano Études but it seems that Rachmaninov felt especially close to Chopin who may have been the principal inspiration on this occasion. The composer described his piano Études as “picture pieces” which are basically “musical evocations of external visual stimulae” but the composer was not fond of revealing his inspirations for each piece. When Respighi was commissioned in 1930 to orchestrate several of the Études for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Rachmaninov readily revealed what or who was the inspiration behind those particular pieces.

Angelich demonstrates a firm understanding of these varied collections. His mellow tone is splendidly blended and he astutely characterises each work. He gives a firm sense of drama to No. 5 Op. 39 which feels remarkably tempestuous with a sense of being chased. Where rhythm is concerned No. 1 Op. 33 has an upbeat, foot-tapping quality. Remarkable are the subtle shadings Angelich gives to the considerable No. 3 Op. 33 with its moving intensity and the even more substantial No. 2 Op. 39 is, by contrast, lyrical and calm. This pianist doesn’t hesitate when controlled force is needed - notably in the boldly assertive No. 6 Op. 39 and in the vigorous playing produced for No. 9 Op. 39.

Angelich is particularly impressive is and very much alive to the varied moods of these works. He never overstates and avoids heaviness. These sessions were excellently recorded back in 1994; shame that are not given the studio location.

Michael Cookson