Rachmaninov’s “The Rock”: An Homage to the Romantic Tone Poem

Sergei Rachmaninov was twenty years old when he composed the orchestral tone poem, The Rock, Op. 7 in the summer of 1893. It is music which looks back as much as forward. We hear Rachmaninov’s distinctive voice coming into focus. At the same time, this early work pays homage to an existing Russian Romantic tradition. The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, to whom the piece was dedicated, Tchaikovsky, and Borodin is evident. At moments, The Rock develops with that …

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Sviatoslav Richter Plays Rachmaninov: Prelude in D Major, Op. 23, No. 4

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Prelude in D Major, Op. 23, No. 4 (Andante cantabile) is a dreamy nocturne in triple meter. Its sensuous melody floats above continuous eighth note waves which rise and fall gently. Moving from intimacy to soaring passion, it takes us on a journey filled with revelatory harmonic turns. Rachmaninov’s Ten Preludes, Op. 23 were composed between 1901 and 1903. “How well he hears the silence,” observed the writer, Maxim Gorky, after …

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Rachmaninov’s “The Bells”: A Choral Symphony Inspired by Poe

During a vacation in Rome in 1907, Sergei Rachmaninov received an anonymous letter which contained an intriguing text. It was Edgar Allan Poe’s 1849 poem, The Bells, freely translated and adapted by the Russian symbolist poet, Konstantin Balmont. Included was a note from the mysterious sender which suggested that the verses were ripe for a musical setting and that they were well-suited to the composer’s temperament. After Rachmaninov’s death, it was revealed that the …

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Remembering Lynn Harrell

The American cellist Lynn Harrell passed away unexpectedly on Monday. He was 76. Years ago when I was a student one summer at the Chautauqua Institution, I attended Harrell’s masterclass and recital. His down-to-earth, irreverent sense of humor, powerful, singing tone, and profound musicianship are etched in my memory. During a career that spanned six decades, Lynn Harrell appeared regularly with the world’s top orchestras. He will be remembered also as an accomplished …

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Rachmaninov’s Suite No. 1 “Fantaisie-tableaux”: Vivid Musical Pictures

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 …

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Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque in D Minor: “To the Memory of a Great Artist”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died suddenly at the age of 53 on October 25, 1893, nine days after the premiere of the “Pathétique” Symphony. He had been an important ally and mentor to the young Sergei Rachmaninov, helping to get the 20-year-old composer’s first opera, Aleko, performed at the Bolshoi Theatre, and expressing interest in conducting his symphonic poem, The Rock. Rachmaninov began composing the Trio élégiaque No. 2 in D minor after receiving word …

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Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli: Five Legendary Recordings

Last Sunday marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Italian pianist, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995). Michelangeli has been called “one of the most enigmatic performers of the twentieth century.” A noted perfectionist, his concert repertoire was considered to be small, and he agreed to the release of relatively few recordings during his lifetime. He practiced eight to ten hours a day, telling students, “One has to work to feel your arms and back …

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