Études-Tableaux, Op. 33
These sets were supposed to be "picture pieces", essentially "musical evocations of external visual stimulae". Rachmaninoff did not disclose what inspired each piece, stating, "I don't believe in the artist that discloses too much of his images. Let them paint for themselves what it most suggests."
However, he willingly shared sources for a few of these études with Italian composer Ottorino Respighi when Respighi orchestrated them in 1930.
Rachmaninoff composed the Op. 33 Études-Tableaux at the Ivanovka estate between August and September 1911, the year after completing his second set of preludes, Op. 32. While the Op. 33 Études-Tableaux share some stylistic points with the preludes, they are actually very unlike them. Rachmaninoff concentrates in the preludes on establishing well-defined moods and developing musical themes. There is also an academic facet to the preludes, as he wrote 24 of them, one in each of the 24 major and minor keys.
Rachmaninoff biographer Max Harrison calls the Études-Tableaux "studies in [musical] composition"; while they explore a variety of themes, they "investigate the transformation of rather specific climates of feeling via piano textures and sonorities. They are thus less predictable than the preludes and compositionally mark an advance" in technique.
Rachmaninoff initially wrote nine pieces for Op. 33 but published only six in 1914. One étude was subsequently revised and used in the Op. 39 set; the other two appeared posthumously and are now usually played with the other six. Performing these eight études together could be considered to run against the composer's intent, as the six originally published are unified through "melodic-cellular connections" in much the same way as in Robert Schumann's Symphonic Studies.
The Op. 33 set is considered better than the Op. 39 set. While Nos. 1 - 4 are simple and immature according to a friend of Rachmaninoff, he also said that Nos. 5 - 9 have been described as extremely virtuosic in their approach to keyboard writing, calling for unconventional hand positions, wide leaps for the fingers and considerable technical strength from the performer. Also, "the individual mood and passionate character of each piece" pose musical problems that preclude performance from those not possessing a tremendous physical technique.
The Op. 33 Études-Tableaux were originally meant to comprise nine études when Rachmaninoff wrote them at Ivanovka. The composer decided to publish only six of them in 1911. Numbers three and four were published posthumously and are often inserted among the six études; number four was transferred to Op. 39, where it appears as number six of that set. (As a consequence, many recordings omit it from Op. 33).
- No. 1 in F minor
- No. 2 in C major
- No. 3 in C minor
- No. 4 in D minor
Oksana Yevsyukova performing Étude-Tableau No. 5 in E-flat minor, Op. 33
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- No. 5 in E-flat minor
- This piece began with a 2-bar introduction in piano marked non allegro, then shifted to presto. This piece is very technically difficult, because of the key, lots of dynamic changes, and it demands a tireless right hand playing at an almost impossible speed, with frequent dynamic changes, crescendos, and diminuendos without affecting the fluency.
Oksana Yevsyukova performing Étude-Tableau No. 7 (6) in E-flat major, Op. 33
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- No. ? (6 or 7) in E-flat major
- Nicknamed "Scene at the Fair" (as Rachmaninoff himself told Respighi), the piece conjures a playful and vibrant atmosphere, with its blaring fanfare opening thirds, wild alternating chords and bells in the end. The middle section poses a great pianistic problem with huge leaps of the hand that lead to chordal actions, which at points are 10th chords, rendering playing the figures at the correct tempo much more difficult. The piece requires strength, precision, endurance, rhythmic control, and dynamic and tonal balance.
- No. 8 in G minor
- A melancholy piece whose sixteenth note accompaniment interweaves between hands. The main difficulty of the piece is facilitating smooth alterations with the hands without affecting the fluency of the melody, and the fortissimo middle section where both hands play a cadenza-like melody, then the arpeggios, first one in rare fortississimo, second one in pianissimo. And near the end, tension builds up and exploded in a G minor harmonic scale and ran over three octaves in fortissimo at tremendous speed before the piece ended very quietly on two G minor chords. This piece requires flexible fingers but also with a gentle touch.
- No. 9 in C-sharp minor
- A big, loud piece began in fortissimo at Grave, it is march-like at first, then the left hand plays a accompaniment with prevalent patterns of leaps, creating a huge roar. Overall, only once piano occurred briefly. The piece has grand dissonances but also contains a gorgeous romantic interlude. This piece requires large hands, strong fingers and high stamina.
In 1929, conductor and music publisher Serge Koussevitzky asked whether Rachmaninoff would select a group of études-tableaux for Italian composer Ottorino Respighi to orchestrate. The commissioned orchestrations would be published by Koussevitzky's firm and Koussevitzky would conduct their premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Rachmaninoff responded favorably, selecting five études from Opp. 33 and 39. Respighi rearranged the order of études, but was otherwise faithful to the composer's intent. He gave each étude a distinct title from the programmatic clues Rachmaninoff had given him:
- La foire (The Fair)
- (Op. 33, No. 7(6))
- La mer et les mouettes (The Sea and the Seagulls)
- (Op. 39, No. 2)
- La chaperon rouge et le loup (Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf)
- (Op. 39, No. 6)
- Marche funèbre (Funeral March)
- (Op. 39, No. 7)
- Marche (March)
- (Op. 39, No. 9)
- Complete Études-Tableaux by Michael Ponti, İdil Biret (1997), Rustem Hayroudinoff (2007), Nikolai Lugansky (1992) and Vladimir Ashkenazy
- There is a well-received recording, including the originally excised numbers of Op. 33, by Vladimir Ovchinnikov on the EMI Classics label.
- BBC Radio 3 chose the recording by Rustem Hayroudinoff (Chandos Records) as the finest version of the Complete Études-Tableaux, in its programme Building a Library.
- Jesús López-Cobos and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra recorded the Respighi orchestrations for the Telarc label.
- Rachmaninoff himself recorded Op. 33, Nos. 2 and 7 (6) (electrical recording).
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