Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Mystique of the Prelude - and Where Rachmaninoff Takes It...

I usually think of the word 'prelude' as  a composition belonging to itself; as a separate and complete expression, with its apotheosis occurring by, arguably, Chopin, in the nineteenth century.
In actuality, this term began to appear increasingly during the time of Couperin in the 17th century as an improvised, brief precursor to larger compositions for keyboard; therefore,  the term 'prelude.'
With  the ensuing increase of  emotional projection  in composition and commensurate physical changes in the instruments that could  support  such demands (termination of such processes as terraced dynamics; or, the pianoforte), the Prelude, for one, takes on the shape and view of a separate, totally independent composition.
And so, when we hear a prelude of, say,  Chopin, we are witness to an example of absolute music( a composition with,  for the most part, no specific 'story');  rather, in such  endeavors by Chopin and Rachmaninoff, pieces written in all 24 major and minor keys  as a kind of compendium of the possibilities of  the  list of human emotions via the diatonic system.
No need to genuflect to the wonders of the Chopin preludes, as  we have been doing that since the 19th century.
Let's move to  the case of Rachmaninoff, whose position is unique in the course of linear history:
A Romantic, who appears after the  peak of the Romantic Era  is passing by, and remains with us until 1943 , midway into a century of immense transition. His position today continues to include  him in the  select group  of the great Romantics.
His contribution to an examination of the 24 major and minor  keys, written in the first decade of the 20th century by way of the prelude, in his opus 23 and 32 projects, stands  as one of the major attainments for the piano. The spectrum of representation of the vocabulary of human emotion is a revelation in these wonderful, relatively brief creations.
My two favorite recordings of the preludes are by the Russian legend Richter and  the American pianist Constance Keene.
Richter, of course, was a big man, and surrounded the piano.  For me, his sense of connection to these gems, has no parallel. No pianist has ever possessed a larger repertoire  - he himself stated that he could play at any time, the equivalent of 15 recital programs without repeating any included piece.
Constance Keene was  a slim, almost fragile-looking figure, who totally belies her appearance in this 1964 recording of the preludes. The great Artur Rubinstein, one of the 20th century's reigning pianists, stated that he was "flabbergasted" upon hearing this recording, and remarked that he could  not imagine anyone surpassing  the greatness of her performance of this music.
Do listen to what happens to this music, when these two play for you...

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