|Friday December 16th, 2005|
|Sverdlovsk State Academic Philharmonic|
The Études-Tableaux (“study pictures”), Op. 33 is the first of two sets of piano études composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff.
These sets were intended to be “picture pieces”, essentially “musical evocations of external visual stimuli”. 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 the 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 not very similar. Rachmaninoff concentrates on establishing well-defined moods and developing musical themes in the preludes. 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, in a minor scale, 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.
Differing from the simplicity of the first four études, Nos. 5–8 are more 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.