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They spoke about it
Schubert’s Klavierstücke and Rachmaninoff’s Études-tableaux Op. 39: two apparently disparate works but sparkling proof of their composers’ genius, two collections all too often neglected by pianists, and two remarkable works that Alain Lefèvre has held within himself for over twenty years. The intensely lyrical and poetic works of Klavierstücke are a testament to Schubert’s great maturity; and the finely crafted little symphonic poems for piano of the Études-tableaux Op. 39 are like mirrors of Rachmaninoff’s tormented soul. Alain Lefèvre approaches each piece like a painting, a story.
While at first glance, the music of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) and Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) seem worlds apart, especially if one contrasts the clear, clean textures of the former with the burgeoning sonorities of the latter, they have more in common than one might think. Both composers were pianists, both were painfully shy, preferring to internalize rather than draw attention to themselves, and both were tormented by their respective creative processes, visited by phantasmagorical visions and haunted by the shadow of death. Particularly gifted manipulators of sonority, both were blessed with great sensitivity and imbued each work with an allegory or subtext that is not immediately obvious. “Music comes straight from the heart and speaks only to the heart: it is love! Music’s sister is poetry, and its mother is sorrow.” Rachmaninoff’s words could quite easily have been uttered by Schubert, one hundred years earlier.
Both composers were also at odds with the musical ethos of their time. Praised by audiences but denigrated by purists who misunderstood his melodic sensuality, Rachmaninoff was too quickly pigeonholed as an old-fashioned composer. But in the way he employed orchestral colours and transcended them into a dense pianistic writing, and in how he refined the instrument’s technique, he irrevocably tipped musical language toward modernity. Schubert also suffered from stereotypes that tainted the perception of his work. Today, we imagine a frail but flamboyant man who could dash off delightfully frivolous waltzes and lieder at will. But his Viennese contemporaries ignored him and underestimated the depth and undisputable originality of his body of work. Only Schumann, who would become Schubert’s ardent defender, seems to have grasped the scope of his genius. Indeed it was Brahms, Schumann’s protégé, who would publish for the first time, forty years after Schubert’s death, the gems entitled Klavierstücke (pieces for piano).
Schubert: Drei Klavierstücke D. 946 (Impromptus)
Intensely lyrical and poetic, these three pieces, written fewer than six months before his death, appear to form part of a third series of impromptus that Schubert had hoped to publish. Their harmonic richness, refined sound and subtle modulations are a testament to his maturity as a composer.
Somber and passionate, the first impromptu (No. 9 in E Flat minor) opens with a breathless rhythm that gives way to the serenity of the first trio, tinged with mute apprehension. The second trio, which Brahms included in the first edition, was left out by Alain Lefèvre, in accordance with Schubert’s wishes, who had furiously scratched it out of the autograph manuscript.
The second impromptu (No. 10 in E Flat major) opens with a sweet refrain, but this ethereal romance shifts suddenly into a terrifying trio. This seems to be a crystallization of Schubert’s fears as he leads us into his darkest inner worlds. The frightening visions are finally dissipated by a bright trio before the anxiety returns, though this is chased away one last time by the refrain, which finds peace at last.
More compact in form, the third impromptu (No. 11 in C major) seems to want to wipe out the tragedy of the first two pages. Brilliant with a remarkable rhythmic variety (especially in its use of syncopation and displaced accents), it ends with an ample coda that concludes this little-known collection.
Rachmaninoff: Études-tableaux Op. 39
The series of finely crafted little symphonic poems for piano entitled Études-tableaux Op. 39 are an awe-inspiring Everest for the pianist. “I don’t approach the work as a series of études,” explains Alain Lefèvre. “Each piece is a painting, a story.” He feels that by reducing them to mere pyrotechnics, one misrepresents their essence. To really get to the heart of them, one must create a poetic space, occupy it, and convey it to the listener. In an interview published in the November 1934 issue of the Monthly Musical Record, Rachmaninoff stated that a composer must possess two essential qualities. “First is imagination. By this I don’t mean to say that the performer does not have imagination. But the composer can be considered to have the more important talent, because before creating, he must imagine. He imagines with such force that the future composition is created in his mind before even a single note is written. […] The second talent, even more important, that distinguishes the composer from all other musicians, is his heightened sense of musical colour.”
For Rachmaninoff, composing the Études-tableaux Op. 39 “presented many more problems than a symphony or a concerto… after all, to say what you have to say and say it briefly, lucidly, and without circumlocution is still the most difficult problem facing the creative artist.” And although in the tradition of Chopin’s Études or Listz’s Études d’exécution transcendante, each piece focuses on the challenges of specific techniques, Rachmaninoff includes a subtext “between the lines” that he always refused to reveal: “I do not believe in the artist disclosing too much of the images. Let them paint for themselves what it most suggests.” When Ottorino Respighi orchestrated five of these pieces for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930, however, Rachmaninoff did provide him with some explanations to help him understand their character and find suitable colours in his orchestrations.
One of Rachmaninoff’s most chromatic compositions, Op. 39 No. 1 seems to evoke The Waves, a painting by Arnold Böcklin (another of whose paintings inspired the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead in 1909). Tumultuous, stormy and menacing, one can feel the squalls being whipped into a tempest of almost nightmarish proportions.
To guide Respighi in his orchestration, Rachmaninoff gave Op. 39 No. 2 the subtitle “The Sea and Seagulls.” This dramatic work, imbued with an all-pervasive desolation, includes a characteristic reference to bells, a primary element in the Russian composer’s musical universe. “If I have been at all successful in making bells vibrate with human emotion in my works, it is largely due to the fact that most of my life was lived amid vibrations of the bells of Moscow.”
A veritable toccata of almost satanic character, Op. 39 No. 3 is one of the most technically demanding of the pieces, with its double note passages and its extreme and very quick leaps.
Op. 39 No. 4 has a scherzo-like character and employs a rhythm that appears in many of Rachmaninoff’s works (two sixteenth notes followed by an eighth note), which he used as a sort of musical signature, most notably in the famous Prelude Op. 23 no. 5 in G minor.
The most well-known of the collection, a broad, romantic drama, Op. 39 No. 5 is typical of Rachmaninoff’s lyrical style, with passionate melodic lines and an accompaniment of triplet chords.
Op. 39 No. 5 tells the story of Little Red Riding Hood, with the ascending chromatic scales at the beginning representing the growling wolf, and the oscillating melody, the terrified girl. After the suggestion of a chase, the music becomes increasingly audacious harmonically, with tonal tension being pushed to its limits. In the coda, the girl beseeches the wolf, but the piece ends as it began, with two growls and a snapping of the jaws.
All of the Études-tableaux include references, more or less veiled, to the Dies irae theme (day of wrath), which is not so surprising given that these works, the last that Rachmaninoff composed in Russia (in 1917), are haunted by the spectres of war and death. In 1915, Rachmaninoff attended the funeral of Scriabin, along with his teacher Sergueï Taneïev (who would himself die shortly thereafter following a cold contracted from attending this funeral). The next year, Rachmaninoff’s father died, causing the composer anguish that he found difficult to hide. “I have never wanted immortality personally. A man wears out, grows old; under old age he grows fed up with himself. I have grown fed up with myself even before old age. But if there is something beyond, then that is terrifying,” he confided as early as November 1915 to the poet Marietta Shaginian. Deeply troubled by his thoughts, he incorporated a funeral march into Op. 39 No. 7. Lyrical, expressive, this piece also has double note passages, is highly contrapuntal, and requires great flexibility on the part of the performer.
Rachmaninoff used his rhythmic signature again in the last work of the Étude-tableaux, Op. 33 No. 9. Particularly orchestral in character, this heroic oriental march closes the cycle majestically.
© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen
Alain Lefèvre is performing on the Yamaha piano CF111S