Works by Sergei Rachmaninoff
Celebrating the Composer’s 150th Birthday
Aula der Universität, Zurich, 2023-04-20
2023-04-29 — Original posting
Rachmaninoff zum 150. Geburtstag: Konstantin Scherbakov in Zürich — Zusammenfassung
Zum Anlass der 150. Wiederkehr des Geburtstages von Sergej Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) bot der Russisch-Schweizerische Pianist Konstantin Scherbakov (*1963 in Barnaul, Sibirien) ein Rezital mit einem Programm, das ganz diesem Komponisten gewidmet war. Die Aula der Universität Zürich war praktisch ausverkauft, was angesichts der Popularität des Komponisten, wie auch des ausgezeichneten Rufs des Pianisten (und seiner langjährigen Lehrtätigkeit an der Zürcher Hochschule der Künste) nicht weiter verwunderte. Rachmaninoff ist schon lange ein wichtiger Teil des Repertoires dieses Musikers, das von Beethoven über Liszt, Godowsky, Medtner, Respighi, Schostakowitsch, hin zu Lyapunov weite Teile der hochvirtuosen Klavierliteratur abdeckt.
Konstantin Scherbakov eröffnete sein Rezital mit vier der fünf Morceaux de fantaisie, op.3 (Nr.1 – 4), denen sich eine Auswahl von vier der 7 Morceaux de Salon, op.10 (2, 3, 6, 5) anschlossen, gefolgt von wiederum vier der Études-tableaux, op.33 (2, 5, 7, 6).
Nach der Pause spielte der Pianist sieben von Rachmaninoff’s Préludes (deren erstes bereits in den Morceaux de fantaisie, op.3 enthalten war): drei der 13 Préludes, op.32 (10, 11, 12), danach vier der 10 Préludes, op.23 (4 – 7). Das offizielle Programm schloss mit den Nummern 5 und 9 aus den Études-tableaux, op.39.
Konstantin Scherbakov, der gerade seine Gesamtaufnahme von Rachmaninoffs Oeuvre für Klavier zu zwei Händen abgeschlossen hat, konnte in diesem Rezital “aus dem Vollen schöpfen”. Die Begeisterung des Publikums rief nach Zugaben—und der Pianist bot deren zwei: als erstes die Nummer 3 (Andante cantabile in h-moll) aus den Six Moments musicaux, op.16, und schließlich ein Jugendwerk, die Mélodie in E-dur aus den vier Klavierstücken der Jahre 1887/1888.
Table of Contents
- Concert & Review
- 5 Morceaux de fantaisie , op.3 (Selection)
- 7 Morceaux de Salon , op.10 (Selection)
- 8 Études-tableaux , op.33 (Selection)
- 13 Préludes , op.32 (Selection)
- 10 Préludes , op.23 (Selection)
- 9 Études-tableau x , op.39 (Selection)
- Six Moments musicaux, op.16: 3. Andante cantabile in B minor (Encore I)
- 4 Pieces, written 1887/1888 : No.3, Mélodie in E major (Encore II)
- Thoughts on the Making of the Recital Program
- What Made the Final Program Better Than the Initial Draft?
|Venue, Date & Time||Aula der Universität, Zurich, 2023-04-20, 19:30h|
|Series / Title||Musik an ETHZ und UZH — Piano Recital Konstantin Scherbakov|
On the Occasion of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 150th Anniversary
|Reviews from related events||Piano recitals with Konstantin Scherbakov|
Recitals in the Main Convention Hall at Zurich University
The Artist: Konstantin Scherbakov
This is the twelfth time that I’m writing about a piano recital by the Russian-Swiss pianist Konstantin Scherbakov (*1963 in Barnaul, Siberia, see also Wikipedia). With this, I can save myself the words to introduce the artist (see my earlier reviews).
It was a work by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) that played a pivotal role in launching the artist’s career, when he won the first prize at the first Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition in Moscow, 1983, performing the Piano Concerto No.4 in G minor, op.40. Ever since, Rachmaninoff remained central to Konstantin Scherbakov’s repertoire.
However, of course, this is by far not the only, or even the main focal area in the artist’s activities. Besides his teaching at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). Konstantin Scherbakov is performing and has recorded a vast and challenging repertoire. It extends from Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) and Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886), the entire solo oeuvre by Leopold Godowsky (1870 – 1938), on to key works by Nikolai Medtner (1880 – 1951), Ottorino Respighi (1879 – 1936), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975), Sergei Lyapunov (1859 – 1924), and many others.
With Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 150th anniversary, Konstantin Scherbakov is placing a special focus on this composer: he has just completed the recording of all of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s works for piano solo, due for release in the near future.
The instrument in this recital was the University’s mid-size Steinway grand, model B-211.
- Morceaux de fantaisie, op.3 (selection):
1. Élégie in E♭ minor; 2. Prélude in C♯ minor; 3. Mélodie in E major; 4. Polichinelle in F♯ minor
- 7 Morceaux de Salon, op.10 (selection):
2. Valse in A major; 3. Barcarolle in G minor; 6. Romance in F minor; 5. Humoresque in G major
- Études-tableaux, op.33 (selection):
2: Allegro in C major; 5: Moderato in E♭ minor; 7. Allegro con fuoco in E♭ major; 6: Non allegro—Presto in G minor;
- 13 Préludes, op.32 (selection):
No.10 in B minor (Lento); No.11 in B major (Allegretto); No.12 in G♯ minor (Allegro)
- 10 Préludes, op.23 (selection):
No.4 in D major (Andante cantabile); No.5 in G minor (Alla marcia); No.6 in E♭ major (Andante); No.7 in C minor (Allegro)
- Études-tableaux, op.39 (selection)
No.5 in E♭ minor (Appassionato); No.9 in D major (Allegro moderato: Tempo di marcia)
- Encore I — Six Moments musicaux, op.16: 3. Andante cantabile in B minor
- Encore II — 4 Pieces, written 1887/1888: 3. Mélodie in E major
Konstantin Scherbakov enjoys an excellent international reputation. With this, the many concerts that he has given in Zurich over the past decades, and his years of teaching at the University of the Arts, it was not surprising to see that the big (and venerable) convention hall of the University was nearly sold out. Of course, there were also numerous pupils from the ZHdK, as well a substantial number of people from the local Russian (and Ukrainian, etc.) communities—and the popular repertoire in the concert also helped attracting people.
As always in this venue, I avoided “getting the full blast of the piano sound right into my face”. Rather, I chose a seat in front part of the right-hand side block (the seats are unnumbered), which (just about) gave me sufficient view also to take photos.
Concert & Review
The recital program entailed substantial changes from the version published originally. I’ll discuss the nature of these changes and their effect further below. I arrived at the concert with the original program in mind. As I was preparing my notes, the tablet for the sheet music, and the camera for taking photos, I did not take the time to inspect the download link for the final program. With this, my impressions were very much “al fresco“, unbiased by what I was expecting to hear. To me, despite the familiar repertoire, the concert was a sequence of surprises (pleasant surprises, of course!).
5 Morceaux de fantaisie, op.3 (Selection)
- Elégie in E♭ minor, op.3/1
- Prélude in C♯ minor, op.3/2
- Mélodie in E major, op.3/3
- Polichinelle in F♯ minor, op.3/4
- Sérénade in B♭ minor, op.3/5
To the composer’s dismay, the Prélude in C♯ minor appeared to be the most popular of his set of ultimately 24—and it obviously still enjoys this reputation. Allegedly, op.3/2 at some point was so popular that Rachmaninoff grew tired of it and “wished he had never written it”.
My concert reviews reflect this imbalance in the popularity. I wrote about one performance of the Elégie, none featuring the Mélodie, two featuring the Polichinelle, a single one (with Konstantin Scherbakov) featuring the Sérénade. In contrast, so far, I witnessed five performances of op.3/2.
Élegie in E♭ minor, op.3/1
Already the first piece (literally: Morceau) was a pleasant surprise, and in my notes, I instantly wrote that the calm, elegiac opening of the Élegie op.3/1 was the far better recital opening than the solemn, grand (and all-too familiar) gestures in the first bars of op.3/2. The calm, rounded, harmoniously rolling bass figures offered a warm welcome, allowing the audience to dive into Rachmaninoff’s romanticism. A smooth transition from the harshness of the everyday world.
It wasn’t just the music, though, but at least as much Konstantin Scherbakov’s interpretation. I liked the harmonious, broad arches in the pianist’s unfailing, masterful command of dynamics, agogics/rubato and sonority (even on this mid-size Steinway B-211), building up to the first climax (ff). A natural, harmonious transition led into the Più vivo, for a second arch, culminating in fff / appassionato, then relaxing towards the fermata.
The long pauses in the little cadenza felt as if the composer was hesitating to continue with the Tempo I, for the final, broad arch, more reflective than the opening segment.
Prélude in C♯ minor, op.3/2
Even though in a key far from the E♭ minor of the opening piece, the ff opening of the Prélude felt like the natural, harmonious continuation of the Élegie. So full of intense reflection, of “inner life” in rich agogics, of a strong narrative—and yet, there was a smooth arch, calming down to ppp, up to the Agitato. The subsequent build-up foremed a single, broad, impressive phrase, culminating in a sffff climax. And Konstantin Scherbakov maintained warm, rounded sonority, never exceeding the capacity of the instrument.
Mélodie in E major, op.3/3
Beautiful, serene, calm, reflective, and highly atmospheric in the cantilena! As the latter built up, the triplet accompaniment harmoniously densified towards the climax, always leaving ample room for the melody. The definition of “romantic”!
Polichinelle in F♯ minor, op.3/4
Eruptive, true, momentary fireworks, depicting the erratic, jumpy, mercurial movements of a puppet—nevertheless reflective, almost pensive in the middle part.
7 Morceaux de Salon, op.10 (Selection)
- Nocturne(Ноктюрн) in A minor
- Valse (Вальс) in A major
- Barcarolle (Баркарола) in G minor
- Mélodie (Мелодия) in E minor
- Humoresque (Юмореска) in G major
- Romance (Романс) in F minor
- Mazurka (Мазурка) in D♭ major
This is only my second concert encounter with Rachmaninoff’s op.10 (the first one featured just the Barcarolle).
The Valse in A major: a light, jolly waltz paraphrase—and playful, virtuosic fun! The Barcarolle in G minor: a very unusual Barcarole in the first part! Not the swaying of a barque on water, but (in the right-hand figures) rather the reflections of sunlight on the curly surface of a lake. Only in the Con moto part, the piece turns out the true Barcarole character, with agitated, virtuosic movements, rhythmic swaying.
The Romance in F minor set a stark, contrasting counterpoint to the preceding fun: earnest, pensive, wistful, longing, the pain of absence / distance? And the final morceau, the Humoresque in G major, set another contrast: moody, skittish, at times grim, erratic—multifaceted and very virtuosic.
In Konstantin Scherbakov’s interpretation, the selected four morceaux and their arrangement formed a compelling, sonata-like structure.
8 Études-tableaux, op.33 (Selection)
The history of op.33 is confusing: 1911, Rachmaninoff wrote 9 Études-tableaux. Only 6 of these (the original numbers 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9) were published, numbered 1 – 6. The composer later revised the original No.4 and published it as op.39/6, while the original No.3 and No.5 re-joined the set as numbers 3 and 4. Most editions and programs now use the new numbering (1 up to 8), thought one still encounters references to the original numbering, where the numbers 4 – 8 appear as 5 – 9.
- No.1 in F minor, Allegro non troppo, molto marcato
- No.2 in C major, Allegro
- No.3 in C minor, Grave
- (No.4: original removed by the composer)
- No.4 (originally No.5) in D minor, Moderato
- No.5 (originally No.6) in E♭ minor, Non allegro — Presto
- No.6 (originally No.7) in E♭ major, Allegro con fuoco
- No.7 (originally No.8) in G minor, Moderato
- No.8 (originally No.9) in C♯ minor, Grave — Poco meno mosso
The first part of the concert culminated in the selection of four Études-tableaux from op.33. A culmination point both musically, as well as in the technical demands—even though most of them are shorter than the Morceaux de salon.
Again, the selection of four pieces formed a sonata-like structure: a light, melodious, elegant (but nevertheless intricate and virtuosic) Allegro in C major (No.2) as first “movement”, a highly virtuosic Scherzo-like Non allegro — Presto in E♭ minor (No.5, originally 6) with blazingly fast passages. The No.7 (originally No.8), the Moderato in G minor formed the slow third movement (with a highly virtuosic, cadenza-like middle segment). The “sonata” closed with the popular, but technically very demanding Allegro con fuoco in E♭ major (No.6, originally No.7).
If this hadn’t been obvious from the performances of op.3 and op.10, here, it was undeniable that Konstantin Scherbakov was drawing from the full range of his pianistic mastership and abilities. Is there any better moment to witness and enjoy the performance of these masterpieces than right after the artist finished recording the complete set, or even better: all of the composer’s works for piano 2-hands?
- C major: Allegro vivace
- B♭ minor: Allegretto — Allegro — Meno mosso — Allegro moderato — Allegro scherzando
- E major: Allegro vivace
- E minor: Allegro con brio
- G major: Moderato
- F minor: Allegro appassionato
- F major: Moderato
- A minor: Vivo
- A major: Allegro moderato
- B minor: Lento
- B major: Allegretto
- G♯ minor: Allegro
- D♭ major: Grave – Allegro
A short description of Rachmaninoff’s complete set of Préludes is found in my review from a concert on 2019-03-27. Préludes from Rachmaninoff’s op.32 were performed in several concerts that I have reviewed.
An all-Rachmaninoff recital program can hardly exist without at least a selection from the composer’s Préludes. Interestingly, Konstantin Scherbakov started the second part of his recital with the Préludes from op.32, not the earlier op.23.
The Prélude in B minor (Lento) opens restrained, pensive—an analogy to the beginning of the first part of the recital? As in the Élégie op.3/2 the reflective, pondering part is just the introduction. With the quaver triplets, the tone broadens, turns big, rhapsodic, grandiose, before the composition gradually returns to the initial, pensive and melancholic mood, ending in somber bass notes.
To me, the Prélude in B major (Allegretto) didn’t feel romantic: rather, I sensed baroque topoi. At the same time, the piece reminded me of music by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918). But then again, weren’t there strong allusions to Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, op.37, i.e., Orthodox church songs? The op.37 was published 1915, so not too far from op.32! Interestingly, even though the pace definitely was Allegretto in 3/8 time, Konstantin Scherbakov appeared to play in entire bars, with dark / dampened sonority. This way, the character of the music was far from Allegretto—rather calm, solemn, melancholic, wistful.
The popular Prélude in G♯ minor (Allegro) with its permanent, iridescent semiquaver figures again appeared to close a “three-movement sonata construct”. Despite the rapid figures, Konstantin Scherbakov managed to maintain a calm atmosphere in the cantilena: masterful, a song without words, really!
- F♯ minor: Largo
- B♭ major: Maestoso
- D minor: Tempo di minuetto
- D major: Andante cantabile
- G minor: Alla marcia
- E♭ major: Andante
- C minor: Allegro
- A♭ major: Allegro vivace
- E♭ minor: Presto
- G♭ major: Largo
Also with op.23, I have previously reported from several concerts featuring Préludes in this set.
The next “group” consisted of four of the most well-known pieces—”must-haves” in a Rachmaninoff recital, so to say. Here, the “sonata” rather followed a (“baroque”?) scheme “slow—fast—slow—fast”. The Prélude in D major (Andante cantabile) combined a beautiful, serene, calm, dreamy cantilena with broad dynamic arches, always maintaining a very diligent dynamic balance. And the climax was truly grandiose (almost orchestral) in its polyphony—both intense and touching.
The next, popular highlight, the Prélude in G minor (Alla marcia): far more than a bravura performance demonstration in staccato articulation! Rather, Konstantin Scherbakov applied careful, diligent and expressive dynamics and agogics: suspense and expression, strong gestures, determination, firmness in the pace—no rushing whatsoever!
The Prélude in E♭ major (Andante) formed a serene, peaceful slow movement with an “endless” cantilena in calm, broad waves. Romanticism in its purest form. Finally, in the Prélude in C minor (Allegro), the “sonata” ended with a popular, virtuosic “showpiece”, featuring a permanent, rapid semiquaver line, storming along—circling a calm, wide-spanning melody line / chord sequence.
9 Études-tableaux, op.39 (Selection)
- C major (Allegro agitato)
- A minor (Lento assai)
- F♯ minor (Allegro molto)
- B minor (Allegro assai)
- E♭ minor (Appassionato)
- A minor (Allegro)
- C minor (Lento lugubre)
- D minor (Allegro moderato)
- D major (Allegro moderato: Tempo di marcia)
Given that the Études-tableaux op.39 are technically more demanding than the first set (op.33), it is no surprise that among the four concerts featuring op.39 that I witnessed, only one featured a set of four pieces (6, 7, 8, 9), while the others performed a single piece only (in two cases op.39/1, as encore).
As already the first part, the second part of the recital culminated in a selection of Études-tableaux—pianistic and expressive masterpieces. The Appassionato in E♭ minor, op.39/5 felt “big” if not huge in all aspects: sonority (amazing what this artist can create from a Steinway B-211!), pianistic and musical gestures, the long rhapsodic arch, the big feelings.
The final Étude-tableau, the Allegro moderato, Tempo di marcia in D major, op.39/9 is just as virtuosic, maybe less rhapsodic (even with brief moments of reflection), but enthralling, brilliant. In several ways, this piece felt like an advanced / Russian equivalent to the Polonaises (I know, a contradiction in terms!) by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849). In a way, this last Étude-tableau aptly rounded off the program without the superficiality of cheap “piano fireworks”.
Six Moments musicaux, op.16: 3. Andante cantabile in B minor (Encore I)
- Andantino in B♭ minor
- Allegretto in E♭ minor
- Andante cantabile in B minor
- Presto in E minor
- Adagio sostenuto in D♭ major
- Maestoso in C major
The two Moments musicaux from op.16 featuring in the original program (No.3 and No.4) got thrown out in the final version. One of these, the lyrical No.3, Andante cantabile in B minor made it back into the recital, in the form of the first encore.
Also here, this wasn’t my first encounter with this opus. In the previous experiences, two artists selected the virtuosic No.4 in their program, a third one performed it as encore, and one single artist performed the entire set.
With the first encore, the music initially appeared to turn inwards, into reflection, warmth, melancholy, sadness—a somber funeral march of sorts, ending in forlornness, darkness. To me, this proved an excellent choice: with the size and importance of Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre, a light or splashy (let alone fun) encore would have been inappropriate.
4 Pieces, written 1887/1888: No.3, Mélodie in E major (Encore II)
- Romance in F♯ minor
- Prélude in E♭ minor
- Mélodie in E major
- Gavotte in D major
Selecting a second encore after the above “funeral march” must have been tricky. Returning to virtuosity and/or grand gestures seemed inappropriate. Konstantin Scherbakov’s choice, however, proved ideal: the Mélodie is a simple Rondo (ABAB’A, Andante — Meno mosso — Tempo I — Con moto — Tempo I) with a nice melody and two couplets—slightly harmless, maybe. Yet, it was interesting to note that at the age of 14, the composer had already found much of his personal idiom. Yes, it does resemble pieces from “The Seasons”, op.37a by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893), but isn’t that a compliment for the young Rachmaninoff?
Thoughts on the Making of the Recital Program
- Morceaux de fantaisie, op.3: 2. Prélude in C♯ minor
- Préludes, op.23: Nos.4, 5, 6, 7
- Préludes, op.32: Nos.2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 13
- Morceaux de fantaisie, op.3: 1. Elégie in E♭ minor
- 7 Morceaux de Salon, op.10: 3. Barcarolle (Баркарола) in G minor
- Six Moments musicaux, op.16: Nos.3, 4
- Études-tableaux, op.33: Nos. 2, 5, 8
- Études-tableaux, op.39: No.5
- Polka de W.R.
Most of this “looks familiar”, though there are substantial differences in the overall structure: the first half was almost entirely devoted to 13 of Rachmaninoff’s Préludes, starting with a “splash” in the form of the all-too-familiar op.3/2. The second half would then largely revolve around a set of four Études-tableaux and two Moments musicaux from op.16.
The one “spice” in this seemed to be the last piece, the “Polka de W.R.“. That’s a short virtuoso piece, and actually a favorite encore of pianists such as Vladimir Horowitz (1903 – 1989). However, it turns out that this isn’t Rachmaninoff’s own composition, but an arrangement of the Scherzpolka in F major, “Das Lachtäubchen“, op.303 by the little known German composer Franz Behr (1837 – 1898).
Changes for the Recital
- Morceaux de fantaisie, op.3: 1. Élégie, 2. Prélude, 3. Mélodie, 4. Polichinelle
- 7 Morceaux de Salon, op.10: 2. Valse, 3. Barcarolle, 6. Romance, 5. Humoresque
- Études-tableaux, op.33: 2. Allegro, 5. Moderato, 7. Allegro con fuoco, 6. Non allegro—Presto
- Préludes, op.32: No.10 B in minor, No.11 in B major, No.12 in G♯ minor
- Préludes, op.23: No.4 D major, No.5 G minor; No.6 E♭ major; No.7 C minor
- Études-tableaux, op.39: 5. Appassionato, No.9 Allegro moderato: Tempo di marcia
- Encore I — Six Moments musicaux, op.16: 3. Andante cantabile in B minor
- Encore II — 4 Pieces, written 1887/1888: 3. Mélodie in E major
Clearly, these changes were much more than a simple rearrangement. Rather, I had no doubt that all these alterations were the result of careful and detailed considerations. These must have covered the aspect of musical logic, i.e., forming musically sensible structures for both halves of the recital, as well as for the entire program. Further, they needed to balance the physical load on the artist.
What Made the Final Program Better Than the Initial Draft?
As indicated above, the final program sequence was no longer simply grouped by form (Préludes — Morceaux de salon — Moments musicaux — Études-tableaux). Konstantin Scherbakov maintained the grouping by opus number, even kept together the remaining seven Préludes. Within each of the “opus groupings” the selected pieces formed more than a sequence of contrasts, but sensible, musical subunits, resembling classical (or romantic) sonatas (or baroque suites even?).
Moreover, he also formed a meaningful, overall musical / dramatic structure, in which each of the halves built up from lyrical to expressive and dramatic, from “easier” (that’s all relative here!) to technically and musically demanding, both parts culminating in masterworks from Rachmaninoff’s Études-tableaux. And even the two encores were excellent fits, diligent choices—the icing on a cake, so to say (and far better than the “Polka de W.R.“—which isn’t even genuine Rachmaninoff!).
It definitely was a pleasure and a privilege to enjoy all this music from the experienced hands of a pianist who is genuinely “at home” in it, knows it inside-out, and doesn’t appear to face any technical challenges with it!
The author would like to express his gratitude to the organizer, Nina Orotchko / Musical Discovery, for the free entry to this concert.