Rachmaninoff – Morceaux de Fantaisie, op.3 (1892)
I was going to make a post only on THE prelude today, but I remembered that I also adored the elegy, and I thought I may as well talk a bit about the full suite. “Fantasy Pieces”, again following the Romantic tradition of free-form music, was written by Rachmaninoff when he was just 19. Think of that! Usually when we talk about composers who wrote great stuff early on, we think Mozart or maybe Beethoven. But still a teenager, Rachmaninoff wrote a suite of gorgeous music, one of the pieces here would become his most popular and loved [to his chagrin]. He wrote the prelude first, and then the rest of the pieces came after, and he dedicated the suite to his teacher Anton Arensky. They are the accumulation of his studies, and show a shift towards a more mature style with craftsmanship and personality. The suite is not necessarily meant to be played as a group, and so you often hear the prelude as a stand-alone work. The opening Elegy starts off like a very darkened Chopin nocturne, and the main melody is full of the expected mourning and disturbingly tragic. This kind of darkness touches in on a lot of Rachmaninoff’s music. The melody sometimes sings out in one voice, sometimes another joins in harmony. And the music isn’t afraid to take sudden harmonic shifts. The middle section has an uplifting melody in the left hand as the right hand glitters over it. After an energetic transition, we come back to the bleak soundworld of the opening, the melody an octave lower. The coda grows louder with passionate descending thirds, and then the final bars go into the bass. The prelude is the most iconic work, and its popularity transcends the rest of the suite. Rachmaninoff was bothered by it the older he got, thinking that the love for the prelude of his teen years overshadowed ‘better’ music he wrote later. But it’s popularity is understandable. It opens with octaves going deep in the bass, part of the nickname “The Bells of Moscow”. They thunder underneath a main melody made up of thick homophonic chords, that has an almost yearning quality. The middle section is made of broken notes falling over each other chromatically, and eventually grows into a frantic passage of chords before exploding into a restatement of the opening, with dense chords slamming in the bass and then the hands jump to play the melody in full chords higher up. For clarity, the music here is written across four staffs. The intensity fills the room with immense pathos. That sounds like overkill with the adjectives maybe, but it does feel like music for an existential crisis. The music calms down a bit before dying away in softer chords, the bells ring out in the distance. After the angst of the opening, we are finally given a break in the form of the “melody”, which softly plays over gorgeous accompaniment, and as with the other works you hear premonitions of mature Rachmaninoff. Using chromaticism to murk up the harmonies, holding onto a gorgeous melody that seems to exist beyond the rhythm of the music, etc. The melody organically develops into an intense passage of chords that then break out into a pretty flourish, before coming back to the opening. The fourth movement, “Punchinella”, in reference to the same Commedia dell’arte character, is whimsical and full of joy, kind of foreshadowing Ravel’s “Alborada del gracioso”, and so with dense chords the music plays around on the keyboard. The middle section again has a main melody in the left hand while the right decorates over it, again keeping in the good mood but more genuine. Then we come back to the opening with its shifting grace notes and fun rhythm. The piece ends with staccato notes across the keyboard. The final work, the Serenade, opens with the melody alone, and comes off as “exotic” music, that is it follows folk writing scales that could be Spanish. It continues the brighter spirit that the second half of the suite has been carrying, while also dazzling with piano technique. Despite being in a minor key and ending with heavy chords, it is still a ‘happy’ piece.
Pianist: Vladimir Ashkenazy