Classical CD Reviews
RACHMANINOV: 9 Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39; 6 Poems, Op. 38; Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42 – Elena Brilova, soprano/Alexander Melnikov, piano – Harmonia mundi
Published on February 19, 2008
Recorded in April 2007, this gorgeous disc concentrates the late, lyric impulse in Rachmaninov’s oeuvre into a small but intensely variegated space. The 1917 set of dramatic etudes Melnikov considers Rachmaninov’s finest solo work. Often experimental in their rhythmic and harmonic density, these pieces belie the notion of Rachmaninov’s innate conservatism. Intricate, polyphonic, and suffused with moments from the Russian Christian doxology, these pieces synthesize much of Chopin and Liszt into Rachmaninov’s idiosyncratic virtuosity. After the agitated C Minor Etude, the A minor emerges as an autumnal tone poem of some nostalgic distinction. The F-sharp Minor flutters as it subconsciously intones the fateful Dies Irae and hints of the D Minor Concerto. The B Minor marches wickedly and fancifully, Melnikov’s shuffling off its tricky agogics with easy grace. The E-flat Minor suggests epic tragedy, as does the famous B Minor Prelude. Melnikov softens the ostinato bass so as not to overwhelm the singing upper voices. The peroration builds ineluctably, nobly, passionately, as befit’s the composer’s marking. The A Minor often bears the ‘program’ of Little Red Riding Hood, but Melnikov’s bass runs suggest not a wolf but a dragon. The scherzo-march explodes into a combusted kaleidoscope of demonic fury. The huge C Minor likely answers one of Chopin’s dark scherzos as well as his own Funeral March Sonata, maybe gloomy Schumann. Meter and bar-lines dissolve fairly quickly, and the spasms of emotion echo both Moussorgsky and Scriabin: bells, but they toll for thee. More after-life visions in D Minor follow, nervous, skittish, laughing but smiling no more. The last of the set, in D Major, insists on gladness through its block chords and martial tread, an elegant but haunted apotheosis, indeed.
Rachmaninov dedicated his Six Romances of 1916 to singer Nina Koshetz. Elena Brilov intones the poems’ wistful evocations of nature and anticipatory desire with plangent expressiveness. The most famous of the set is No. 3 Daisies, from its piano transcription. The poem by Igor Severianin lilts with implications of Demeter’s reconciliation wit her daughter, Persephone. The piano trills send fond aromas through the air. The Pied Piper might almost be a Slavonic polka, the piper musing on a lover’s tryst. The longest of the set, Sleep, lingers much as the Vocalise of Op. 34. The Sologub poem reminds us of what tender mercies Macbeth forfeited when he murdered King Duncan. The last poem, by Balmont, might have been composed for Mahler, so fraught it is with disappeared love and delicately poised weltschmerz.
Melnikov conceives the Op. 42 Corelli Variations (on La Folia) as a bitter, even choleric admission that the desired past lies dead and gone. The world of Glinka and Liszt has been subsumed into the Century of Death. Schumann, Liszt, and jazz merge along the path of faded flowers–with full credit to Schubert’ song. Only the savage declamations from the last of the Symphonic Dances will equal the morbid, mordant, aggression of this bravura piece, which Melnikov tosses off as one studied in issues of mortality, as though nothing in his life excelled his imaginative leaving of it.
– Gary Lemco