Sergei Rachmaninov’s Fantaisie Tableaux for two pianos, better known as Suite No. 1, Op. 5, was conceived as “a series of musical pictures.”
The piece is made up of four vivid and magical soundscapes, each loosely inspired by a poem. It’s music of the young Rachmaninov, written in the summer of 1893, a year after his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory. The score was dedicated to Tchaikovsky, who offered the young composer support. Following Tchaikovsky’s death in October, 1893, Rachmaninov wrote the haunting Trio élégiaque No. 2 in D minor, a piece we explored in a recent post.
The influence of Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers can be heard throughout the Fantaisie Tableaux in a way that is more pronounced than in later works. At the same time, this piece is filled with the sensuous, heart-wrenching melodies and harmonic turns we have come to associate with Rachmaninov’s later works.
The first movement (Barcarolle) suggests gently lapping water and the melancholy voyage of the gondolier through a mysterious nocturnal dreamscape. It was inspired by Mikhail Lermontov’s poem of the same name. The wide range of the two pianos suggest an almost symphonic sense of color. Bright, glistening splashes of light glint off the highest notes.
The second movement, La nuit…L’amour… (“The Night…the love”) moves deeper into the night. In the opening bars, the song of a nightingale emerges, expressed in the interval of a falling major third. Mysterious and sensuous, cascades of chromaticism build to an ecstatic climax. The music was inspired by an excerpt from Lord Byron’s Parisina.
In the opening of the lamenting third movement, Les larmes (“Tears”), based on a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, we hear the musical equivalent of flowing teardrops. Expansive harmonic vistas open up, yet the final bars bring a gloomy, despairing march that might remind you of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony.
The final movement, Pâques (“Easter”), erupts with the joyful celebration of a Russian Orthodox Easter morning. The mighty, clanging sound of Russian bells accompanies a Russian liturgical chant. As with the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, harmony feels suspended in midair. Aleksey Khomyakov’s poem, “Easter,” captures the atmosphere:
Across the earth a mighty bell is ringing
Until all the booming air rocks like the sea
As silver thunderings sing forth the tidings
Exulting in that holy victory…
Here is a recording featuring Vadim Rudenko (Piano 1) and Nikolai Lugansky (Piano 2):
- Rachmaninov: Suite No. 1, Op. 5 (Fantaisie Tableaux), Vadim Rudenko, Nikolai Lugansky prestomusic.com