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Richter plays Rachmaninoff Etudes-Tableaux op.39 No.1 & 2

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Published on Aug 25, 2009

The title Etudes-Tableaux / picture etudes was apparently coined by Rachmaninoff, although this form is not unique to him. It is possible that the Transcendental Etudes of Liszt served as a forerunner to the Etudes-Tableaux. Each piece presents a pianistic problem, in the tradition of the etude. In addition to this, an extra-musical idea is implied, although Rachmaninoff was reluctant to reveal any program associated with the Etudes-Tableaux.

He stated, "I do not believe in the artist disclosing too much of his images. Let them paint for themselves what it most suggests."

The Etudes-Tableaux were the last works Rachmaninoff composed in Russia. Author of "Rachmaninoff: His Life and Times", Robert Matthew-Walker, writes that they mark the virtual end of the nineteenth-century tradition of virtuoso writings of the great composer-pianists. He further states that Opus 39 is a hidden set of variations on the composers idée-fixe, the Dies irae, parts of the plainchant being quoted directly in all of the nine studies, particularly obviously in the first five. He adds that in these compositions Rachmaninoff seems to be writing less in the Russian tradition and more in the Central and East-European tradition.

The entire collection contains a vivid rhythmic life of its own. A different harmonic language including modal harmonies is used and can be compared to that of the Third Concerto.

The Etudes-Tableaux Opus 33 were composed in the months of August and September of 1911 and were premiered by Rachmaninoff on December 13, 1911 in Moscow. They were published in August of 1914. Rachmaninoff composed the Etudes-Tableaux Opus 39 between the years of 1916 and 1917. The first publication of opus 39 was in 1917. Rachmaninoff premiered the set prior to its publication in Petrograd on November 29, 1916.

Rachmaninoff found the writing of the Etudes-Tableaux very difficult after composing several large-scale masterpieces including the Third Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony. He stated :

"They presented many more problems than a symphony or a concerto . . . after all, to say what you have to say and say it briefly, lucidly, and without circumlocution is still the most difficult problem facing the creative artist..."

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