RACHMANINOV Sergei, Music for Two Pianos

Suite No.1: Fantaisie (Tableaux), Op.5
Vocalise, Op.34 No.14
Suite No.2, Op.17
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

When Rachmaninov was a sixteen-year-old student at the Moscow Conservatory, Tchaikovsky declared: ‘I predict a great future for him’ and he watched with interest as Rachmaninov’s career developed. At a private soirée in September 1893, Tchaikovsky heard a preview performance (on piano four-hands) of his Pathétique Symphony (a month before its premiere) and that same evening, Rachmaninov showed Tchaikovsky his new Suite for two pianos. It turned out to be their last meeting: by the time Rachmaninov and Pavel Pabst gave the public premiere of the Suite on 30 November 1893, Tchaikovsky was dead. When the work was published the following year, it was headed with a dedication ‘À Monsieur P. Tchaikowsky’. The original title was Fantaisie (Tableaux) pour deux pianos, and in the score, each movement is prefaced by a poem. While working on the piece in June 1893, Rachmaninov had written to a friend that it was ‘a fantasy representing a series of musical pictures.’ Accompanying the opening ‘Barcarolle’ (Allegretto) is a poem by Lermontov that begins: ‘At dusk the chill waves lap gently beneath the gondola’s slow oar’, and ends on a reflective note: ‘time glides over the surge of love; the water will grow smooth again and passion will rise no more.’ For ‘Night…Love’ (Adagio sostenuto), Rachmaninov turned to Byron: the poem beginning ‘It is the hour when from the boughs the nightingale’s high note is heard.’ The third movement is a lament (Largo di molto) entitled ‘Tears’, accompanied by Fyodor Tyutchev’s poem beginning ‘Tears, human tears, you flow both early and late.’ The finale is ‘Easter’ (Allegro maestoso), a musical evocation of Aleksey Khomyakov’s words: ‘Across the earth a mighty bell is ringing … exulting in that holy victory.’  


The Vocalise was first written in 1915 for wordless soprano voice and piano, but Rachmaninov himself soon made orchestral arrangements (with and without voice) and others followed, including a solo piano arrangement by Alexander Siloti (1921) and several different transcriptions for piano four-hands. This short piece found Rachmaninov on inspired form, with a memorable melody unfolding over gently shifting harmonies.  


The Suite No.2 was composed between December 1900 and April 1901 – written simultaneously with the Second Piano Concerto – and first performed by Rachmaninov and Alexander Siloti in Moscow on 24 November 1901. Unlike the Suite No.1, this work has no programmatic element. The first movement, headed ‘Introduction’, is marked Alla marcia, the second is a quick Waltz, the third an ardent ‘Romance’ (Andantino), and the fourth a ‘Tarantella’ (Presto) which brings the work to a dazzling close. 


On one memorable occasion in 1942, Rachmaninov and Vladimir Horowitz played the Suite No.2 at a private concert for family and friends, and at another private performance the same legendary duo played the Symphonic Dances. This work was composed in 1940: the two-piano score is dated 10 August 1940, and the more familiar orchestral version was completed two months later. It turned out to be Rachmaninov’s last composition. Originally, he planned to call it Fantastic Dances and to give each movement a title (‘Noon’, ‘Twilight’ and ‘Midnight’) but settled on the more neutral ‘Symphonic Dances’ and gave the movements simple tempo indications: Non allegro, Andante con moto (Tempo di valse) and Lento assai – Allegro vivace. This work is the supreme example of Rachmaninov’s more astringent late style, though there are also nostalgic self-quotations from earlier works: at the end of the first movement, a serene recollection of the main theme from the First Symphony (1895); and in the finale the chant ‘Blessed art thou, Lord’ from the All-Night Vigil (1915). At the end of the manuscript score, Rachmaninov bade farewell to his composing career with the words: ‘I thank Thee, Lord’.  


© Nigel Simeone


Support from individuals is vital to our work.
Your gifts help us engage the very best in UK and international talent in our concerts, and to run our annual Sheffield Chamber Music Festival.