Rachmaninov: Prelude in Bb major, Op 23 No 2  [3’18”]

Sviatoslav Richter, piano

24 Rachmaninov at the piano

The younger Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov, working on the scowl

To snap us out of our sombre torpor, before we quite drop off our twig, we need to leave Paris behind and return to Moscow, where one of Scriabin’s classmates at the conservatoire was Sergei Rachmaninov (1873–1943) – that six-and-a-half-foot scowl, as Stravinsky nearly described him.  Following the critical failure of his (perfectly fine) first symphony in 1897, Rachmaninov suffered a notorious collapse of morale lasting for what remained of the century.  “I was like a man who had been struck a blow,” he would recall, “and who for a long time loses the use of his hands and – his head.”  Only with the help of a particularly sympathetic hypnotherapist, who had already successfully treated his aunt, was he able to compose again.  This earned Nikolai Dahl not just a small place in music history but the dedication of the resulting work, one of the world’s most popular piano concertos, ‘Rach Two‘ as it’s known, by way of a tip.

The instant success of the concerto led to an upswing in self-confidence, one of whose products was the 10 Preludes, opus 23, published in 1903.  There’s no better illustration of the composer’s return to health than this splendid Bb example from the set, which although it may itself show bipolar tendencies, when it is sure of itself is very sure.  Indeed it actually matches the crackling bravura of Chopin’s opus 25 no 12 (Track 15), which within this playlist it serves to counterpoise.  As I suggest, though, it’s not all gung-ho, the transition to the B section (from 0’53”) introducing a whiff of Russian gloom, or at least a preoccupied air.  The mood of the opening soon returns, preparatory to its crashing back in with all the original grandeur (or grandiosity), at 1’55”.  When it can be brought off, was there ever a better encore piece to send an audience home feeling they’ve had their money’s worth?

This music was written to be played by one of the great pianists of the twentieth century – Rachmaninov himself – and is performed here by another, his late compatriot Sviatoslav Richter.  When it comes to the virtuoso chops this prelude requires, not least the inhuman things the left hand is expected to do to produce that thunderous effect, he is not found wanting.

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