Classical Music for All is the musical blog of the Pianist Boris Giltburg. For more articles see here.

Learning the 24 Préludes by Rachmaninov

(I originally wrote this article for the April 2019 issue of Pianist magazine.)

About three years ago I received an invitation to play at the Tokyo Spring festival. “Wonderful!” I said. “But are you OK with the programme?” my agent asked me. “It has to be the complete 24 Préludes by Rachmaninov.” I was taken aback for a moment, as by that time I had only played 12 out of 24, but I knew that at some point I would love to play all of Rachmaninov’s works, so I accepted, and dived into learning the remaining half of the cycle. This turned out to be an utterly fascinating, enriching experience, and one of the strongest recital programmes I’ve ever played.

Playing a full cycle, of whatever pieces by whichever composer, has a very definite appeal. Those of us who enjoy collecting get a highly satisfying feeling of completion. We can have it all, with nothing left out. You get to spend a long time at the company of a composer you love, and hopefully to know them better afterwards. The anticipation begins the moment you first read through the many yet-unknown-to-you pieces. It’s like opening a chest full of uncut gems, going excitedly through them one by one, and imagining how they will look once you’ve found the form which hides inside each of them.

Rachmaninov’s 24 Préludes are large miniatures. Each one encloses a standalone, developed world, complete unto itself. Like similar cycles by Bach, Chopin, Scriabin and others, they cover all 24 major and minor keys. Rachmaninov’s cycle differs from the others in an interesting way: it took him 18 years to get from the first prélude to the last. In this way, the cycle holds a mirror to his development as a composer.

It’s often said that Rachmaninov’s musical language hardly changed throuhout his career. There definitely are melodic and harmonic traits which immediately identify any of his music as his and only his, but the more Rachmaninov I play, the more I grasp a trajectory from the lush, rich, dense, utterly Romantic textures in his earlier works, to a much clearer, leaner, more muscular and transparent way of writing in his late works, which increasingly also feel connected to the 20th century.

The Préludes, uniquely, show this transformation within the course of a single cycle. The C-sharp minor prélude Op. 3 No. 2 and the 10 Préludes Op. 23 clearly belong to the earlier, passionately Romantic language of Rachmaninov, whereas the 13 Préludes Op. 32 already show signs of his later style. Performing the entire cycle in one concert, therefore, makes you feel as if you’re accompanying Rachmaninov on a transformative journey spanning decades; it’s a feeling of a great privilege, almost of awe.

But to zoom from these lofty heights into the grit of daily work: you quickly realize that the strength of a cycle relies on the strength of each of the pieces within it. The variety of moods, characters, colours, and of technical challenges in this cycle is honestly staggering, as is the sheer richness of invention. This makes for an engaging listening experience, but also requires a very broad mastery of both technique and musicianship.

So far as I’m aware, Rachmaninov didn’t intend the Préludes to serve any kind of didactic purpose, but they could well be used as a mini-encyclopedia of piano technique. Here’s a quick list of purely technical challenges:

…and more; and of course, many of the préludes present multiple challenges throughout the piece.

The D-flat major prélude in particular—a magnificent valedictory gesture—has a mind-boggingly difficult reprise, just two-and-a-half pages in length, but of such complexity that much of the Third Piano Concerto seems easy in comparison. (The musical idea of the prélude is, by contrast, absolugtely clear, but you can’t get to it until the technical obstacles are overcome.) The E minor prélude is another ‘monster’, with the build-up in its last third, culminating with a Presto possibile cascade of fortissimo full-chord triplets in both hands, probably belonging to the most challenging things written for the keyboard. All in all, mastering the cycle is guaranteed to vastly advance your technique.

Another challenge, or perhaps responsibility, is to make sure that every prélude receives as much love and attention during preparation as if it were the best in the set. I think it’s almost unavoidable to have favourites when working on the set as a whole. Some préludes will inevitably appeal to us more than others, because of their mood or narrative or even because they lie more comfortably under our fingers. From experience, the natural tendency is then to practise these more, simply because we enjoy them more. The extra attention, in turn, makes them advance more quickly, which adds to the enjoyment, which leads us to play them more often, and so the cycle is reinforced. To avoid developing ‘weak spots’ inside the cycle of préludes, more attention should probably be given to those preludes which do not hold immediate appeal.

There’s a huge satisfaction, though, to be gained from turning these préludes into favourites too. For me, such ‘hidden gems’ were the F major, A major, B major and the D-flat major préludes from Op. 32. The F major prélude, which at first seemed a bit weird, turned out to be very weird, and defined at least in part by its weirdness: written in the unusual Lydian mode (the same as the theme tune to The Simpsons!), with bizarre waddling rhythms and a very strange reprise based on chromatically moving quintuplets; all oozing a wonderful quirkiness. The B major prélude still evades exact definition for me: its simple, benevolent harmonies and elegant repeating rhythms conceal an enigmatic core, Mona-Lisa-like. The D-flat major prélude, however, revealed itself to be a complete masterpiece, broad, victorious and life-affirming—a wonderful close not just for this prélude or for Op. 32, but for the complete cycle. The A major prélude is probably the only one in which I’d cautiously criticise Rachmaninov: it’s beautiful, ‘on-the-waves’ music, but perhaps overly complex for its musical idea.

Musically speaking, the cycle of Préludes is a treasure trove of tangible, breathing atmosphere, of arresting narratives and emotional snapshots, endlessly varied. No two of them are fully alike. The D major, E-flat major and G major préludes all feature singing, lyrical melodies over a calmly flowing accompaniment. Yet each of them is quite different in mood from the others, being clearly differentiated by a careful choice of tempi, register and articulation. Capturing a strong and unique atmosphere for each prélude was one of the chief joys of performing the cycle; it was like turning the pages of a picture book, eagerly waiting for each new scene to present itself. Among the absolute atmospheric highlights I must mention the B minor prélude, inspired by Böcklin’s painting The Homecoming. It’s enough to look at the painting and see the apparent mismatch between it and the music to set our imagination going—an invitation for psychoanalysis if there ever was one in music.

Having performed the cycle in Tokyo and elsewhere on that tour, I felt such excitement that I wrote to my label, Naxos, asking whether they wanted me to record it. To my huge delight they did, and I can barely say how much I’m looking forward to performing the cycle again in the coming months.

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