Sergej Rachmaninov: Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Etudes tableaux Op. 33, Sonata Op. 36


Official release: 16 April 2021

  • Artist(s): Massimiliano Motterle
  • Composer(s): Sergej Rachmaninoff
  • EAN Code: 7.46160912264
  • Edition: Da Vinci Classics
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Instrumental
  • Instrumentation: Piano
  • Period: Romantic
  • Publication year: 2021
SKU: C00395 Category:

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While the figure of the virtuoso pianist-cum-composer who toured the concert stages performing his (or her) own works was a very familiar sight in the nineteenth century, it gradually tended to disappear in the twentieth. This figure was in fact strictly bound to musical practices which slowly faded as time went by: for example, the public performance of improvised pieces or transitions, the aesthetical connection between vocal and instrumental virtuosity and melodic formulae, the identification between composer and performer, and a rather ephemeral concept of the musical event.
From this viewpoint, the figure of Sergei Rachmaninov can be considered as a “survivor” from an earlier era. In comparison with some other great musicians who were approximately his contemporaries, Rachmaninov chose a different stance. Even though his musical language was full of innovations and novelties, it never denied the structural basis of tonality; the forms he chose, the composers he revered, the influences his music reveals: all this clearly proclaims that Rachmaninov’s aesthetics was grounded in the late-Romantic tradition.
Having begun his musical training at an early age, Rachmaninov was fortunate to find a true mentor in Nikolai Zverev, an excellent piano teacher who was also a true “educator”. Under his guidance, and surrounded by a group of fellow students (with many of whom he maintained lifelong cordial relationships), Rachmaninov quickly progressed from the status of a promising and talented teenager to that of an accomplished pianist and composer. His graduations in piano and composition were greeted with universal acclaim, and he composed one of his most famous works, the C# minor Prelude, when he was not yet twenty years old.
It is rather unsurprising, therefore, that young Rachmaninov attracted the attention of Tchaikovsky, the most famous Russian living composer, who generously promoted the young musician’s works and championed them whenever this was possible.
Rachmaninov’s career thus began under the best auspices: his main source of income came from his performances as a pianist, but he soon began also an activity as a conductor, and many of his compositions were highly appreciated by public and critics alike.
The three works recorded in this Da Vinci Classics album represent three different genres in Rachmaninov’s immense pianistic output, but also three different approaches to pianism. There is an example of a large-scale work, the Second Piano Sonata, in which Rachmaninov’s skill in handling complex and long structures is clearly apparent. There is a homage to the past which however becomes also an opportunity for creating one of the most innovative works in Rachmaninov’s entire catalogue, particularly as concerns the harmonic language and the tonal perspective. There are also the Etudes tableaux, representing the complementary aspect of Rachmaninov’s genius, i.e. his capability to concentrate a consistent musical thought and a complete aesthetical perspective within the space of a few minutes.
All three works, together, represent still another feature of Rachmaninov’s pianistic writing: an extreme virtuosity, which was and still remains largely unequalled, and which would be unthinkable without the mastery of the keyboard displayed by the composer himself as a piano virtuoso. Though Rachmaninov’s writing pushes the boundaries of what is feasible on a piano to the extreme, and to extremes which had not been attempted prior to his works, it maintains a deep suitability to the well-trained hands of virtuoso musicians, in contrast with other composers who seem to struggle with the pianists’ natural endowments.
Yet another element recurs at least in two of the works recorded here, i.e. Rachmaninov’s tendency to revise and reconsider his compositions. In the case of the Etudes tableaux op. 33, in fact, two expunged pieces are reintroduced in the version recorded here, whereas in the case of the Second Piano Sonata, the version performed here is the earliest of the two extant ones.
The first set to be composed, among the works recorded here, is precisely that of the Etudes tableaux. It has been argued that while Scriabin followed in Chopin’s footsteps, Rachmaninov was closer to Liszt’s; this is perhaps an oversimplification, but, as happens with many stereotypes, it does possess an element of truth. In particular, Liszt frequently adopted titles or suggestions for his virtuoso pieces, including his transcendental Etudes. Rachmaninov’s sets bear the title of “Etudes-pictures”, but, significantly, no official titles were revealed in their published version. (Only when the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi expressed the intention of orchestrating a handful of them did Rachmaninov disclose, or perhaps invent, their “titles” or suggestions).
The two sets of Etudes tableaux include a high number of pieces with a sombre and rather dark mood. The first set, op. 33, was composed during the summer of 1911, while the composer was on holiday in the estate of Ivanovka, owned by his family and particularly suited for concentrated compositional work. The collection was planned to include nine pieces, which were tested in public concerts before considering their appearance in print. Two years later, in 1913, Rachmaninov eventually decided to publish them; unexpectedly, and when the title-page had already been prepared for printing, he withdrew three Etudes from the set (those originally numbered 3 to 5). Rachmaninov was seemingly decided to never print at least two of them; in 1917 he wrote: “The deleted [Etudes] area in my desk drawer. They will not be published”. Actually, the Etude originally numbered as fourth was revised and later included in the second set of Etudes Tableaux (op. 39); the remaining two were printed posthumously in 1948, but are comprised in the present recording. Among these pieces, moments of lyricism and expressivity are found (for example in the case of no. 2, with its intense singing, and of no. 3, with its lugubrious style), while others are memorable for their virtuosic whirlwinds (for example no. 5, which is occasionally referred to as “Snowstorm”).
The scissors of self-censorship mercilessly operated also on Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata, published as op. 36. It was composed in the same year when op. 33 was published (in its mutilated form), i.e. in 1913. Rachmaninov started working on it during a prolonged stay in Rome, Italy. Here, he had rented a flat in the central and fascinating Piazza di Spagna, currently one of the most hectic places of the international tourism and shopping, though it was evidently much quieter at Rachmaninov’s time. In fact, Rachmaninov found concentration and focus there, even though his entire family was with him, and was able to work intensely on two major works, i.e. the Chorale Symphony The Bells (op. 35) and the Sonata. The family’s stay in the apartment which had been, in previous years, the Roman residence of the Tchaikovsky brothers came to an abrupt end when Rachmaninov’s two daughters fell ill with typhoid fever. Mistrusting the Italian doctors, the family immediately left the Peninsula and went to Berlin, where the children were satisfactorily treated; later, they went back to their homeland and to the already-mentioned estate of Ivanovka. There, Rachmaninov completed the Sonata and decided to dedicate it to a former fellow student of Zverev, i.e. the pianist Matvey Presman. The Sonata was eventually published in 1914 by a Russian and a European publisher (in order to ensure the composer’s copyright). In 1931, however, Rachmaninov came to reconsider it, along with other earlier works, and decided to shorten the piece by almost a quarter of its length. The Sonata, numbered as the composer’s second and in the same key as Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata, was evidently compared by Rachmaninov with Chopin’s model. Rachmaninov explicitly stated: “I look at my early works and see how much there is that is superfluous. Even in this sonata so many voices are moving simultaneously, and it is too long. Chopin’s Sonata lasts nineteen minutes, and all has been said”. Opinions are divided as to whether the cuts were really necessary. On the one hand, the revised version is certainly more compact and consistent, without some of its most virtuoso and perhaps showy passages. On the other, it has been argued that the resulting piece loses something in terms of compositional balance and proportions. Vladimir Horowitz created a hybrid version of his own, seemingly with Rachmaninov’s approval; however, performers wishing to adhere to the composer’s intentions need to choose between one of the two original versions.
Also the Variations on a Theme by Corelli were occasionally subject to Rachmaninov’s cuts; in this case, they were decided on the spur of the moment, according to the audience’s mood. Half-jokingly, the composer wrote to Nikolay Medtner: “Not once did I play them all in consecutive order. I orientated myself according to the amount of coughing in the hall. When there was a lot of coughing, I skipped over the next variation. When there was no coughing, I played it in the proper sequence. At one recital in some little city, I don’t remember where, there was such aggressive coughing that I only played ten variations (out of 20). My record was in New York, where I played 18 variations”. The audience’s unappreciative reactions were possibly due to the concentrated and somewhat atypical writing of these Variations. Actually, the theme upon which they are based is not by Corelli: it was a much earlier and anonymous harmonic sequence known as Las Folias, and Corelli had simply written a very famous set of variations of his own, with which Rachmaninov had become acquainted through Kreisler. Notwithstanding the misattribution, Rachmaninov evidently considered the reference to an ancient model as an encouragement to find a serious language in terms of harmony and polyphony; as frequently happens, the gaze towards the past brought important (and therefore slightly puzzling) innovative elements.
Together, these three masterpieces offer a very complete and enthralling panorama on Rachmaninov’s pianism and compositional style, mixing the most complex virtuosity with unforgettable musical moments.

Album notes by Chiara Bertoglio


Motterle, Massimiliano (Pianist) formed under the guidance of Sergio Marengoni and graduated at Milan Conservatoire “Giuseppe Verdi” summa cum laude and with special mention, then completed his artistic formation with internationally renowned teachers and pianists such as Franco Scala, Lazar Berman, Paul Badura-Skoda e Alexis Weissenberg.
He won 21 National and International Competitions, including the International Competition in Parma where he was also received the Jury’s Special Award for the best performance of the Liszt sonata. He was a finalist in the Valencia Josè Iturbi Competition, won 3rd Prize (no 1st price was awarded) in the prestigious Franz Liszt Competition in Buda-pest and in the International Competition in Cincinnati-Ohio.

In 1994 he debuted at Sala Verdi in Milan performing Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto with the Milan RAI Orchestra directed by Daniele Callegari and, in the same prestigious Sala, he was chosen to play the piano belonging to Vladimir Horowitz.
In 2004 he performed Liszt’s 12 Transcendent Studies for the Concert Society, he was also invited to perform both Liszt’s Malediction at the Great Concert Hall in Budapest with the Liszt Chamber Orchestra and Totentanz with the Hungarian Matav Symphony Orchestra in the prestigious Liszt Academy Hall.

He held concerts all over the world: in Austria, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Spain, Sweden, Hungary, Taiwan, Oman and the United States, performing with prestigious international orchestras such as the Liszt Chamber Orchestra, the Hungarian Matav Symphony Orchestra, the Valencia Orchestra, the RAI Symphony Orchestra and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under important conductors such as Umberto Benedetti Michelangeli, Piercarlo Orizio, Andras Ligeti, Riccardo Frizza, Jonathan Webb and Neil Gittleman.
He actively collaborated with various artists such as Andreas Brantelid, Karin Dornbusch, Elisa Citterio, the Scala String Quartet and, since 2007, he has been collaborating with violinist Fulvio Luciani with whom he recorded for Naxos and performed Beethoven’s piano and violin integral sonatas for the international TV channel Classica HD.
He held various seminars and masterclasses in Italy, in Taiwan and in the U.S.
He currently teaches piano at the Conservatory “G.Donizetti” in Bergamo and is the Artistic Director of GIA, the historical music association of Brescia, and of festivals such as “Onde Musicali” and “Iseo Classica”.


Sergey Rachmaninov: (b Oneg, 20 March/1 April 1873; d Beverly Hills, CA, 28 March 1943). Russian composer, pianist and conductor. He was one of the finest pianists of his day and, as a composer, the last great representative of Russian late Romanticism. The influences of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian composers soon gave way to a thoroughly personal idiom, with a pronounced lyrical quality, expressive breadth, structural ingenuity and a palette of rich, distinctive orchestral colours.

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