I’ve had occasion to write about the Rachmaninoff Preludes in previous posts. They are 24 pieces, one in each major and each minor key, covering a vast amount of emotional territory, each one of which has very exacting technical demands for the performer. At least half a dozen of these are of the “greatest hit” variety, works that are firmly entrenched in the fingers of most pianists and in the aural memories of millions of listeners.

Also among Rachmaninoff’s works for piano are two books of Etudes-Tableaux, his Opus 33 and 39, a total of 17 etudes. Almost without exception, the technical challenges of the etudes-tableaux are a cut above the preludes. These are virtuoso pieces.

Rachmaninoff wrote the eight etudes that comprise the Opus 33 etudes in 1911 at the age of 38; he wrote the nine etudes that comprise Opus 39 in 1917.

I thought it might be interesting to contrast two of them, one in the most tragic of keys—E-flat minor, from Opus 39—and one in the most triumphant—E-flat major, from Opus 33. The links I have chosen are pretty extraordinary.


Although it may be difficult for present-day music lovers to understand, being accepted as a serious composer—a composer with musical ideas that had depth and “meaning”—however that is defined—was an uphill climb for Rachmaninoff. Much of his early piano music was regarded as being for the salon. A typical representation of the place Rachmaninoff held in Russian society prior to the 1917 Revolution is shown in the movie Doctor Zhivago in a scene where Rachmaninoff is playing his music in a salon in Zhivago’s in-laws apartment. (In the scene, Zhivago and his father-in-law leave the house-recital to go outside for a smoke, the inference being that coming and going from a salon recital was a barometer of how meaningless the event was.)

But Rachmaninoff’s etudes-tableaux were absolutely meant for the concert stage, and made it clear that Rachmaninoff was a contender.


Opus 39, no. 5, E-flat minor

Several years ago, the British classical music magazine Gramophone published an excellent article on Rachmaninoff, written by Bryce Morrison, from which I am quoting:

“The sticking, and now tipping, point surely lies in Rachmaninov’s unapologetic emotionalism, a quality dear to the Russian soul but one viewed with suspicion and even distaste by a more academic and circumspect mentality. Rachmaninov is now no longer exclusive to Russia but is performed by pianists of virtually every nationality – even the French have erased their once snobbish disdain. Yet if Rachmaninov’s Romantic rhetoric and deep-dyed melancholy are central to Russia, it must be said that even Sviatoslav Richter, Rachmaninov pianist par excellence, shied away from the emotional storms of Op 39 No 5, declaring, ‘Although I love listening to it I try to avoid playing such music as it makes me feel completely naked emotionally. But if you decide to perform it, be good enough to undress.’

If proof of Rachmaninov’s stature were needed it would surely be provided by the Etudes-tableaux, Op 39, his second book of studies and a notable advance in richness and complexity on the earlier but very attractive Op 33 set. Completed in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution and the time of the composer’s enforced exile, they mirror a dark and clouded ecstasy…”

This E-flat minor etude has become, over the past century, a measuring stick of the technical prowess of many, many piano competition contestants. The turbulence of its storm and the darkness of its melody involve audiences from its first notes.

Alexei Sultanov was a Russian pianist from Uzbekistan. His story is pretty tragic. At the age of 19, he won the eighth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He was the youngest competitor in the competition. Part of the Cliburn prize involves performances around the world along with career management opportunity. Sultanov did not need to prove himself further after this win, but he made headlines again in 1995 at the International Chopin Competition. The jury awarded no grand prize, but offered Sultanov second prize, an award he rejected, feeling he should have won—a verdict that many others held—he was certainly the people’s choice.

In 1996, at the age of 27, he suffered what turned out to be his first stroke. He was diagnosed with blood clots in the brain. He suffered a second stroke onstage while performing in Tokyo. A third stroke in 2001 left him only able to play piano while in a wheelchair. Another stroke finally killed him in 2005.

This particular performance is from the 1989 Cliburn competition, which he won.


Etude Opus 33, no. 7 (The Fair)

I remember the first time I heard this etude was in a piano competition I was involved in. It was performed by a girl I knew—who ultimately won the contest—and as soon as I heard her last notes, I knew I had to learn the piece. What starts out sounding like a military march turns, by the last page, into a wonderful cascade of showering sounds. It is a great encore piece.

The moniker “tableaux” was an indication—from the composer himself—that he had been inspired by certain things—paintings, people, events, and so on—for the composition of each piece. He purposefully kept these associations to himself—like Chopin, he was dead-set against the idea of forcing upon listeners extra-musical associations. Nevertheless, when he was asked to allow the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi to orchestrate five of his etudes-tableaux, Rachmaninoff shared with Respighi certain information about the etudes. This particular etude reminded Rachmaninoff of a festive fair—and it certainly sounds that way.

This link is absolutely fascinating. First of all, it is of Rachmaninoff himself playing. It is yet another of Zenph Studios re-creations of original performances, taken from piano rolls, transferred with microscopic precision to a Yamaha Disclavier, and then—via their own software—superimposed with a colorful visual image of the work as it is played, with important notes given a larger appearance and different colors than less-important notes, and with time values accordingly indicated by size. The clip is both aurally and visually mesmerizing.

Two etudes-tableaux of Rachmaninoff…