Given the ravishing Romantic beauty of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano oeuvre, it’s easy to forget that the composer only passed away in 1943, meaning that for copyright purposes new editions of his works are only now beginning to significantly make their mark.
Chief among editions must surely be the colossal Critical Edition of the Complete Works edited by Valentin Antipode and published by the Russian Music Publishing in 2005, in association with Schott Music GmbH and Boosey & Hawkes.
Now available, the “Practical Edition” for performers is based on that groundbreaking benchmark edition.
This review will take a look at Volumes 2-4 in the ongoing series. In case you are wondering, Volume 1 apparently won’t be available for a little while yet, but I hope to bring you a review once it is!
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Works
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was one of an extraordinary number of brilliant composers to emerge in pre-revolution Russia, and in the quarter century between his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892 and the 1917 October Revolution, he poured out a succession of stunningly consistent piano works, as well as much of his best orchestral, vocal and choral music.
Throughout this time, he also built an international career as a concert pianist, such that after his emigration to the USA in 1917 he was so in demand in the concert hall that he had little time left for composing in his later years. It is no surprise then, if we find that his final works maintain the compositional style and voice that he mastered at the end of the late Romantic Era, largely eschewing the pivotal changes in musical language that dominated the early twentieth century.
In their seminal Guide to the Pianist’s Repertoire, (fourth edition, Indiana University Press, 2014), Maurice Hinson and Wesley Roberts beautifully and succinctly summarise Rachmaninov’s piano music thus:
“The piano music of Rachmaninoff is written in an eclectic individual style derived from Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Brahms, and is flavoured with Russian nationalism. Rachmaninoff’s melodic writing is of the highest order and is supported by sonorous harmonies with florid decoration, resulting in unusually effective music for the instrument. A breathless motion permeates most of his writing.”
Alongside his four hugely popular Piano Concertos and the beloved Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Rachmaninoff’s most performed piano works include his two Suites, Russian Rhapsody and Symphonic Dances for two pianos, the Second Piano Sonata and the late Variations on a Theme of Corelli.
But Rachmaninov is at least as well regarded for his many tautly composed piano miniatures, mainly suitable for the most advanced players, which remain ever-popular concert hall favourites.
It is these shorter works that largely dominate the volumes presently under review.
The Music in Volumes 2-4
Volume 2 contains Rachmaninoff’s piano compositions from the 1890s –
- Morceau de Fantasie Op.3
- Morceaux de Salon Op.10
- Six Moments Musicaux Op.16
These three cycles contain 18 pieces between them, and feature many of the composer’s most accessible works, including the popular Prélude in C sharp Minor Op.3/2.
There are “second versions” of four of these pieces, and the Appendix features a stray Fugue in D minor dating from 1891.
Volume 3 features the complete set of 24 Preludes, including a reappearance of Op.3/2 followed by the Ten Préludes Op.23 and Thirteen Préludes Op.32.
Here, an extensive Appendix includes first versions and variants of individual Préludes followed by first variants of individual text fragments.
Volume 4 focusses on the Etudes-Tableaux Opp. 33 & 39. The Nine Etudes-Tableaux Op.33 appear complete in both their 1st Version (1911) and 2nd Version (1913).
These volumes are surely among the most robust that I have encountered in soft-cover form. From high-quality covers to thick cream pages, and sturdily bound, they seem capable of withstanding a considerable battering.
Initially I wondered whether they would stay open on the music stand – I am happy to report that those concerns weren’t justified: playing through a few favourite Préludes, I found that the spines can be bent back fully without apparent weakening, making them as perfect for use as practical performance scores as they are for library use.
The bulkiness of the books is not only accounted for by the high quality materials and craftsmanship, or the presence of the different versions and variants of the included works – each volume also includes an extraordinary amount of additional content.
Each volume begins a detailed Preface which offers background on the history of the pieces as well as performance notes, with citations and excerpts. These all appear in the original Russian, with English translation.
Each volume also features several pages of images of the original manuscripts in Rachmaninoff’s hand. Simply lavish!
The scores themselves are beautifully presented, with nicely spaced and well engraved notation that is a huge improvement on the edition I was previously using. My single small niggle is that the page turns aren’t always as convenient as those I am used to – although it’s fair to say that there’s never really a good place for a page turn in Rachmaninoff!
Brilliant urtext editions of Rachmaninoff’s complete piano works in monumental and stunningly produced volumes … seriously, what’s not to like?
Those using the older Rachmaninoff editions from Boosey & Hawkes or Belwin Mills will find the notation, presentation, scholarship and durability of these astonishing volumes well worth the investment.
Those looking for a more straight-forward, but no less accurate edition may be interested to look at recent editions from Henle Urtext.
Overall though, these editions really are the ones to beat, and Rachmaninoff enthusiasts everywhere – whether scholars, performers or both – will be eager to snap up copies of these practical urtext editions now that they have landed on our shores!
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