Seven Preludes from Op. 23
If Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev can be said to share the genotype of the great Russian pianists/composers who carried on the legacy of Anton Rubinstein (1829-94), consider what different courses they were eventually to follow. Rachmaninoff would be remembered as the last of the line of Romantic greats; Prokofiev would carry the label earned early in his career of the barbaric and percussive composer, the perpetual enfant terrible.
When Sergei Rachmaninoff died in Beverly Hills in 1943, he had conquered the musical world both as pianist and as composer. His recorded legacy is still regarded with awe and his works for solo piano and piano with orchestra are staples of the repertory. We should note, however, that almost all of the music for which he is best known was composed before the Russian revolution forced him and his family into exile from their homeland in December of 1917. In fact, his career as a virtuoso began out of necessity rather than inclination, when means of supporting his family became his primary concern as they moved from Europe to America. Rachmaninoff was a composer, who had to perform for a living.
The Ten Preludes of Op. 23, of which Bronfman plays the first seven, were completed in 1903 - the most often performed of the set, No. 5 in G minor, was completed as early as 1901. The preludes were composed at the same time as his first extended piece for solo piano, the Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22, itself derived from Chopin's C-minor Prelude. It is no surprise, then, that Rachmaninoff would take inspiration from Chopin's precedent and begin composing a set of his own. With the addition of the later Thirteen Preludes, Op. 32, and the most famous of his compositions, the C-sharp-minor Prelude written when he was a teenager of 19, Rachmaninoff continued the tradition of Bach and Chopin by having written preludes in all 24 of the major and minor keys.
The young composer's marriage in May of 1902 and the impending birth of the couple's first child may have contributed to this amazingly fertile period, a creative re-emergence after the devastating failure of his First Symphony in 1895. In less than three years time he had completed his Second Piano Concerto, the Second Suite for Two Pianos, and the Cello Sonata. The Op. 23 Preludes, with their alternating moods of nostalgic sadness (No. 1), tenderness (No. 4), and heroic vigor (No. 5) and joy (No. 2), can plausibly be regarded as an autobiographical testament. Irina, the couple's daughter, was born on May 14th and Julian Haylock tells us that in response, "Rachmaninoff sat down the very same day and composed his E-flat major Prelude (No. 6), a microcosm of wide-eyed innocence and blissful contentment."
-- Grant Hiroshima is Executive Director of a private foundation in Chicago and the former Director of Technology Development for the Los Angeles Philharmonic..