Sergei Rachmaninoff. First Piano Suite for Two Pianos
In the summer of 1893 Sergei Rachmaninoff, inspired by the success of his recently premiered opera Aleko at the Bolshoi Theatre and Tchaikovsky’s approval, went on to compose works one after another. As before, the composer’s imagination was taken by the unforgettable summer months of 1890 which he spent with the Skalon sisters on an estate at Ivanovka in the Tambovsky District. His unrequited love for Vera, the younger sister, flows throughout Rachmaninoff’s correspondence with the sisters with many hints and words left unsaid. The words of these unspoken emotions come to the surface in his music of the time, the most striking instance being in the First Piano Suite for Two pianos. The first two parts of the Suite – the Barcarolle (the epigraph from an article by Lermontov) and La Nuit... L’Amour... (the epigraph from an article by Byron) – are imbued with the sweet moods of loving delights that make us remember the famed languor of Wagner’s operas. However, the musical scenes in Rachmaninoff’s suite unfold with a particularly Russian spirit of expression. The young composer expressed his tense and lyrical emotions in a manner at one with beautiful scenes of nature, inventively conveyed through the piano music in the form of imitating the splashing of waves or a nightingale singing. In the two other sections of the Suite, before us we see an earlier impression of Rachmaninoff: “One of the most dear childhood memories I have is of the four notes that rang out from the chiming of the great bells of the St Sofia Cathedral in Novgorod.” The third section, Les Larmes (the epigraph from Tyutchev’s Human Tears) is based on a motif from the four “silver” bell notes that Rachmaninoff had associated with the thought of tears since his childhood. This motif develops with such tense instability that it seems to continue the psychological line of the second section. Even the final section of the Suite, entitled Pâques (with an epigraph from an article by Khomyakov), with its impressive scene of large and small bells ringing out and the emergent theme of the church chant Christ is risen, sounds more elementally stimulated than triumphant, and it doesn’t bring any tonal or emotional relief.
Franz Liszt. Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 (arrangement for two pianos)
“Living art of a living people”
Franz Liszt believed one of the most important aims in his life to be the development of Hungary’s national culture. It should be said that the composer had an uneasy attitude towards not just his native folklore but also towards the national cultures of many other European countries. Supposing that the character of a people is expressed first and foremost in music, Liszt used folk melodies from many different countries to create his own dazzling works for piano – this was how he declared his respect for this or that nation. But it was, of course, the folklore of his native Hungary that was exposed to the most serious study, in a form that the eternally hastening Liszt could extract from the urban environment (as a rule he did not have the time or money for serious ethnographic trips). This was the temperamental and highly virtuoso instrumental performances of gypsy orchestras, firmly rooted in the Hungarian peasant tradition of the verbunkos (music performed during recruitment into the army). The two large series of piano works (as well as many separate works for piano and orchestra) were the fruits of Liszt’s interest in folk songs and dances: “Hungarian National Melodies” and “Hungarian Rhapsodies”. As a stunning virtuoso, Liszt saw his piano “arrangements” of national themes not as a reconstruction of someone else’s art but as the chance to create new works that emanate imagination and performance dazzle spontaneously.