Rachmaninoff: Variations on a theme of Chopin, op. 22

performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy, or below by Nikolai Lugansky

Rachmaninoff! Also been a while since we’ve seen this guy. I actually had no intentions of duplicating so many of the composers from last year’s Russian Symphony series in this piano series, but then again… that was a three-month long series with lots of music in it, so I guess it’s hard to avoid.

Rachmaninoff wrote some outstandingly famous sets of variations.

These are not them.

The Corelli variations and the Paganini variations come one right after the other, the first for solo piano, the second a piano concerto of sorts, and they’re both quite famous, and rightly so.

Almost three decades earlier, however, he tried his hand at his first set of variations, on one of Chopin’s preludes, op. 28 no. 20 in Cm. The theme and its 22 variations come to a total of less than thirty minutes depending on the recording (just over 26 for Ashkenazy), but the first edition of the score also noted that variations VII, X, and XII, as well as the final 19 bars of XXII may be omitted “if the performer wishes.” I suspect this may be for purposes of technical difficulty with the first two, but XII is one of the longest of the set, so maybe it does have something to do with performance length…?

The work begins with the first eight bars of the Chopin prelude and then jumps to the final chord of the source material. It’s funny, listening to this opening and associating it with Rachmaninoff, because I think someone could pretty easily attribute it to him if they didn’t know it was of Chopin’s hand, and I haven’t found any particular reason stated for why Rachmaninoff chose this prelude of this work of Chopin. Perhaps it was because it sounds towering and melancholy and like something Rachmaninoff would write or identify with. Who knows?

The first two variations alone tell a lot, I think, about the work. While the first variation suddenly moves away from those thick, towering Rachmaninoff-esque chords to something clean and Bach-ish (giving the impression we’ll be seeing enormous exploration of content, at least to me), the second variation is really just a continuation of the first, with lines of 16th notes. So yeah, it sounds different, but in some ways it also sounds very similar. There are a few highlights, though, and the piano writing is identifiably Rachmaninoff, even if it doesn’t have some of the charm of his later works.

The fourth variation seems to hit a stride, to gain a voice, and the fifth finds a trickly, lyrical pianistic sound, while the sixth is elegant and even nocturne-like, one of the most outstandingly beautiful of the set, like something that would come out of one of the composer’s later concertos, a second movement melody with strings playing softly in the background. This is a highlight.

The seventh contrasts nicely with it, virtuosic and fast, but so is the eighth. To note, no. 7 is one of the three (four?) that can be omitted per the notes in the first edition. After 6-8, a nice little triplet, no. 9 seems like a cadenza, and is one of my other favorites. 10 is more of the nature of 7 and 8, and 11 isn’t very eventful.

12 is familiar from somewhere other than this work. It seems like it’s hovering around something else I’m familiar with, suggesting a melody, perhaps something the composer would later use more fully; I really can’t say. It also seems like a standalone work; while it’s not a virtuosic fireworks-type encore thing, it’s one of the longest and most full-bodied in the content it presents. Really beautiful.

13 reminds us again of the source material, more like a riff on it than a variation, and 14 rather continues that.

15, now this is something. Allegro scherzando. This is vibrant and creative and contrasting and textured. It’s from a different world while not being too unfamiliar. It’s outstanding. A few of the earlier variations and this one convince me that this entire work could be compressed down to about five variations, and retitled ‘Thoughts on…’ instead of variations. Splendid.

16 reminds us (maybe even more) of the concerto-second-movement lyricism of no. 6. Can you hear strings in the background, a clarinet or flute here and there, a distant chorus of horns accompanying the romantic, melancholy melodies of this variation? I certainly can. 17 and 18 don’t cover much new territory to me.

19 is suddenly like the celebratory, bright finale of the aforementioned nonexistent concerto. It’s a welcomed change of expression and burst of excitement in what is often a rather melancholy work, and 20 continues with a more ‘runny’ feel. 21 is almost the longest of the whole set and cools things back down before the grand finish, which is a wonderful way to end the work. It’s celebratory, and reminds me of Tchaikovsky. It’s triumphant and grandiose and while it clearly shows its relation to the source material, the spirit of the music couldn’t be more different. That being said, after all the bombast and joy of the opening, the piece has some more somber passages, and finishes quietly, as Ashkenazy does observe the removal of the final 19 bars, which are marked presto. I am fine with this omission, and quite like the quiet ending.

I feel that in this set of variations, we’re taken on a different journey than, say, what Brahms might give us. Instead of a festive, exciting, parade of one new snippet of music after another, like different opinions of the original theme strung together, it feels more like we circle around it, like we’re a bit tethered to the content rather than using it as a springboard or human canon to soar off into new territory.

Granted, there are obviously moments of beauty, glimmering shining highlights of piano writing, like 6, 12, 15, 19, and 22, but as a set, as one twenty-plus minute piece, the narrative is more circular than linear, although I do appreciate that the finale of the piece, rather than spiraling back down into the C minor gloom with which we began, sells the ‘ad astra per aspera‘ angle by finishing triumphantly and heroically, which caps off the work and some of its less memorable passages with a bold ending.

No more negative. It’s certainly nice enough, but he has better, and the Paganini Variations are certainly a testament to the composer’s ability, with an accompanying orchestra, no less. We’ll get to those eventually, but I also felt it appropriate to give a nod to Chopin, seeing as folks like Rachmaninoff and Scriabin viewed him with such great esteem. If nothing else, listen to that last variation and see what he did with Chopin’s melancholy melody.

I may have not given the composer much credit here, but stay tuned later in the week for what’s arguably one of his greatest and for some reason not as often performed achievements. See you then. до свидания.

 

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