Marianna Prjevalskaya Rescues a Rachmaninoff Rarity
Let’s say you’re the world’s most famous classical pianist, or one of them, anyway. And you’re a real rock star. You’re riding an unprecedented wave of popularity, after having rescued your career with one of the most harrowing pieces of music ever written, namely the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2.
And you need an encore. Instead of coming up with another completely original work, you throw caution to the wind. Without a moment’s hesitation, you use a similarly haunting theme by Chopin – one of the world’s best-loved and most morose melodies – as a stepping-off point for an ambitious, dynamically gripping suite. That’s what Sergei Rachmaninoff did in 1903 with his Variations on a Theme of Chopin. Trouble was, it bombed.
Although considered by many to be the greatest pianist in the history of recorded music, Rachmaninoff’s surviving recordings – dating from the early 1900s through 1943 – do not include many of his compositions. Sadly, the Variations on a Theme of Chopin are one of them. Which is why pianist Marianna Prjevalskaya’s new album of that suite, along with the vastly better known Variations on a Theme of Corelli, is so vital, and such a revelation. Thousands of artists have released versions of the latter, and we know how the composer played them – far more quietly, and broodingly, than most have since. And you can hear them on Spotify, along with Prjevalskaya’s album.
But other than a handful of recordings by famous pianists – Vladimir Ashkenazy probably foremost among them – we don’t have anything of the Variations on a Theme of Chopin. It’s one of the real rarities in the composer’s canon. The critics didn’t like it, and audiences responded indifferently, which explains why the thin-skinned, angst-ridden Rachmaninoff quickly abandoned it and never picked it up again. Which is too bad. In its own idiosyncratic way, it’s every bit as gripping as the Corelli variations. Why isn’t it better known? You’ll be asking yourself that over and over again after you hear how Prjevalskaya approaches these 22 variations on the iconic Chopin C Minor Prelude. Where other pianists play it either raptly, or go to the other extreme and make heavy metal out of it – and is it ever heavy! – Prjevalskaya plays the prelude sparely, and spaciously, and lingeringly.
And then completely flips the script and plays the first variation with a liquid, Bach-like legato. The contrast is stunning, and may have something to do with why the suite went over like a lead balloon. Clearly, fans of the music weren’t ready to hear that iconic, funereal piece sliced and diced and spun through a prism as Rachmaninoff did with it – and as Prjevalskaya does here.
She finally picks up with the stern, emphatic (some would say interminable) gravitas associated with the composer, and then follows the logical trajectory as it spirals up and out. Both far more ornate and colorful than the original, it’s sort of proto art-rock from 1903.
Contrast the composer’s own version of the Corelli Variations with Prjevalskaya’s and then ask yourself how Corelli would respond. One suspects he’d be more at home with Prjevalskaya’s dancing, lilting Italianate performance than Rachmaninoff’s Slavic gloom. In so doing, she skirts both the temptation to go grand guignol on them, or fall into the trap of lefthand-versus-righthand that becomes almost a shtick if you want to ramp up the underlying menace. While it’s certainly worth a listen on Spotify, as is the case with so many classical recordings, some of the segments are flittingly brief, and ads pop up at the most inopportune times. One suspects that an awful lot of fans of dark, troubled music will be adding this to their cd collection so as to experience its dips and swells and tormented flurries as an integral whole.