The pianist-composers represented on this recording are on the one hand contemporaries celebrated in the early 20th century as virtuoso performers and prolific creators. On the other hand, they epitomize divergent directions and backgrounds. Both fully represent their countries and social spheres. Rachmaninoff remains the ultimate Russian post-romantic, with compositions demonstrating brooding intensity, pathos and luminous technical demands. Gershwin is the ultimate American from the era with fresh, brash, brassy and sentimental music. Naturally, both provide pianists an opportunity to show their own and the instrument’s capabilities.
The prelude idiom, explored by so many masters-Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Skryabin is particularly represented on this recording, and provides us with a full representation of both the common ground and marked differences between the composers. Memorable melodies, catchy thematic motives and technical demands abound. The listener then encounters the last vestiges of one era–the Romantic–and the initial bloom of the jazz age.
Perhaps the best known of the Preludes, much to the chagrin of the composer, who was reluctant and then refused to program it, is the Op. 3, No. 2. The funereal and ominous three note descending motive forms the foundation of the A section, over which stern chords provide an answering figure. The B section consists primarily of rousing triplets, concluding with a cascading flurry back to the A theme, expanded harmonically and in pianistic range. The memorable coda’s slow moving chromatic chords provide a finale of desolate resignation.
The shadow of Chopin looms large over the entire Op. 23 collection in many aspects-harmony, passage writing, embellishments, cadenza figures. Op. 23, No. 2 requires a bravura performer to manage the harmonic thirds, sixths and octaves that are unleashed with the primary motives, the maneuver the constantly altered metric subdivisions, cross-rhythms and rhythmic counterpoint. The grand gesture and marcato elements dominate the musical personality-triumphant and jubilant in this case, reminiscent of the spirit of a grand polonaise. Op. 23, No. 4 contains a much sparser texture-at least for Rachmaninoff-but still conveys a lush, sensuous atmosphere. This is the art song of the group, replete with an operatic apex, bel canto line and accompanying cross-rhythms and arpeggiations. Op. 23, No. 5 commences with a militaristic punctuated march rhythm and intense personality, building to powerful widely-spaced chords and potent octave bridges. This gives way in the B section to a soaring and evocative melody over long intricate arpeggiations, again building to a stirring dramatic high point prior to the return of the A section. The coda, following the fragmentation and diminution of the rhythmic motives, wists away both intensely and delicately. Op. 23, No.6 finds its ancestry in the progressive elements of the Chopin etudes and sonata finales. This is a virtuoso showcase with turbulent and motoric left hand passage work and intricate chromatic decorative figures reminiscent of the Op. 10, No. 12 Revolutionary Etude. Motivic cells presented in octaves and chordings are re-shaped and re-stated in a typically Rachmaninoff developmental procedure before a sparkling two voice extended passage finale.
The Opus 32 set finds Rachmaninoff forging new paths and is more progressive, even Lisztian. No. 12 may be his prettiest. The shimmering opening ostinato precedes a gorgeously simple descending melodic statement. A more insistent rhythmic repeated chord figure builds the drama, followed by evidence of the composer’s skill at chromatic voice leading, harmonic intricacy and rhythmic variety-hemiolas and polyrhythmic counterpoint. This is magnified with a wondrous textural sheen as the introduction and main theme return. The glittering coda and final perdendo is simply lustrous.
The gentle ostinato waves, use of an arpeggiated harmonic pedal and undulating melodic line thirds contained in the Moment Musical Op. 16, No. 5 hearken back to the Chopin Berceuse. The subtle harmonic chromaticisms likewise have a shared ancestry. This introspective miniature also hints at an underpinning of pathos, which is the central feature of the Etude-Tableau in G minor, Op. 33, No. 3. A brief, direct, yet engrossing melodic cell is enchantingly in dialogue with descending sixth chords. Once again the composer demonstrates how these thematic groups then kaleidoscopically become enhanced. Dramatic pause points set up a brilliant cadenza and a return to a resigned, impassioned re-entry of the first thematic group. A final Chopin reference-this time the G minor Ballade finale-concludes the piece. The Tableau designation is appropriate as well in the Op. 39, No. 9–the performer is requested to treat the colouristic and pictorial qualities as significantly as the technical challenges. This particular tour-de force is a dichotomy of the magisterial and orchestral alongside the lithe leggiero and balletic.
If there is an unofficial New York anthem, or in fact signature piece for Americana, it must be the Rhapsody in Blue. Viewed initially as a hybrid curiosity, a product of a 1924 concert billed as a Grand Experiment, bringing together the Paul Whiteman jazz orchestra with performers of the Western European Classical tradition in a varied program, it is recognized and heralded world wide. Gershwin’s virtuosity can be witnessed on re-issues of his own performance. Perhaps all that is lacking in the solo transcription is the insouciance of the opening clarinet glissando. Otherwise, the teasing blues rooted main theme, rollicking rags and scherzo, slow drag marcato dances, tender Broadway ballad, animated cadenzas and spectacular grande finale continue to entertain the listener and challenge the performer. Rhapsody In Blue as performed by Alan Hobbins on this compact disc recording is the Warner Brothers 1996 publication, recently restored to Gershwin’s original manuscript.
The Preludes now considered a set first came to light with performances in 1926 prior to 1927 publication. In the first, a brief brassy syncopated statement and juxtaposed G minor/B-flat major chords set up the punctuated and vibrant theme groups. The ascending tri-tone/fourth ascending arpeggio figures serve as lively bridges. Final octave thematic statements lead to a brilliant scale passage in fourths finale and “splash” chord. The designation Blue Lullaby indicates a 12 bar blues harmonic approach (though more chromatic), blues-vocal-like motivic repetitions and a tender melodic character. The B section slightly alters the mood with a more animated quality. The reprise of a more ornamented A section concludes with an extended delicato broken ninth chord arpeggio.
The Spanish Prelude designation refers more to the pageantry of character than actual Hispanic musical roots, but the rhythm does hint at rhumba. In fact, the bass is more ragtime and stride piano oriented; the harmony juxtaposes major and minor key centres. A brilliant cadenza-like bridge replete with a Lisztian alternating hands flourish sets up a final octave thematic presentation, accompanying left hand register leaps and once again, a true grande finale.
It’s no accident that Gershwin confidante Kay Swift intended to set Prelude “Melody no.17” to words (Sleepless Night, 1946). There is a Man I Love resemblance to the reflective reverie melody. A welcome mixture of blues and classical chromatic harmony with chromatic passing notes over harmonic pedal points provides the chord structure. Prelude Rubato (1923) consists of a whimsical swing melody over a series of arpeggiated chords, especially unresolved sevenths and tri-tones. A particularly clever moment is an extended flat vii harmonic pedal with chromatic voice leadings over top, prior to parallel fifth chord streams to a flat ii fermata–then a sotto voce return of the main theme.
Rialto Ripples is a delightful romp, bringing to mind the ragtime and stride piano stylings of Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith. This was Gershwin’s first instrumental work and was written in collaboration with Will Donaldson. The exuberant A section with its animated chromatic accompaniment and syncopated melody gives way to a more relaxed but harmonically active and melodically embellished B section. The rollicking reprise of A concludes the work.
The Royal Conservatory of Music
Tracks & Samples:
1. Rhapsody In Blue for Piano Solo - Gershwin
2. Prelude I - Gershwin
3. Prelude II Blue Lullaby - Gershwin
4. Prelude III Spanish Prelude - Gershwin
5. Prelude Melody No. 17 - Gershwin
6. Prelude Rubato - Gershwin
7. Rialto Ripples - Gershwin
8. Moment Musical in D-Flat Major, Op. 16, No. 5 - Rachmaninoff
9. Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2 - Rachmaninoff
10. Prelude in G-Sharp Minor, Op. 32, No. 12 - Rachmaninoff
11. Prelude in B-Flat Major, Op. 23, No. 2 - Rachmaninoff
12. Prelude in D Major, Op. 23, No. 4 - Rachmaninoff
13. Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5 - Rachmaninoff
14. Prelude in E-Flat Major, Op. 23, No. 6 - Rachmaninoff
15. Étude-Tableau in G Minor, Op. 33, No. 3 - Rachmaninoff
16. Étude-Tableau in D Major, Op. 39, No. 9 - Rachmaninoff