Monday, December 2, 2013

Rachmaninoff - Rhapsody On A Theme of Paganini

Sergei Rachmaninoff initially wanted to be a composer, but he had to rely on his abilities as a pianist to make a living after he left Russia. The revolution of 1917 saw the loss of Rachmaninoff's estate (he was a member of the bourgeoisie), and his way to make a living. He was 44 years old when he left his native country in late 1917 and he never went back.

In 1921 he emigrated to the United States and toured extensively as piano soloist. He completed only six compositions between 1918 and 1943, the year of his death. His home in the U.S. reflected his homesickness for his native Russia, as the household practiced Russian customs and had Russian servants. He did build a vacation home on Lake Lucerne, Switzerland where he spent his summers. It was there that he wrote Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini in 1934.

Rachmaninoff himself was the pianist at the premiere of the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conductor. Rachmaninoff admitted the work was very difficult and that he had to practice it diligently. Paganini's 24th Caprice For Solo Violin is the theme used for the variations, a theme used for other sets of variations by other composers:
Paganini's original theme for solo violin
 Coincidentally (or not) Rachmaninoff writes 24 variations on the theme.  The work is played non-stop, but the variations are arranged in three groups that roughly coincide with the usual fast-slow-fast movement plan of a conventional piano concerto.

After a short introduction, the work begins with the first variation before the theme itself is played. Mention needs to be made of Rachmaninoff's idee fixe, the Dies Irae, that appears in the 7th variation.  The most recognizable variation in the set is No. 18, where Rachmaninoff turns the theme upside down and slows the tempo which results in a melody that is pure Rachmaninoff in its expression and beauty.  After this variation, the music steadily grows in intensity and power until the Dies Irae reappears. Then the piano erupts in a double glissando on the black keys and white keys. The music swells into a tremendous chord, when suddenly the piano quietly utters the first snatches of the theme to a pizzicato accompaniment and the work ends.

The work was a great success at the premiere and became one of Rachmaninoff's most popular compositions.  He performed it many times in the last decade of his life and it was the piece he played at his last appearance as a soloist with orchestra two months before his death.

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