Although Sergei Rachmaninov lived at roughly the same time as other Russian composers such as Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, he stands out among them. All of these important Russian composers had something in common: their problems with the dramatic changes following the Russian revolution. Scriabin, although enjoying an international career as composer and pianist, never really left the country - but as he died already in 1915, he did not yet really suffer from communism. Shostakovich did not leave the country for a variety of reasons, but Prokofiev, also enjoying an international career, chose to live for years in Paris. He however returned to his home country during the time of the worst of Stalin's terror, for reasons which are still not completely understood. Rachmaninov however took the opportunity of a concert tour of the West and left Russia in the aftermath of the revolution in 1917, never to return to his homeland.
Sergei Rachmaninov had a difficult youth, primarily because of his parents' ongoing financial problems, resulting in their marital difficulties and eventual divorce. His family lived in St. Peters-burg, where he first began learning to play the piano, tutored by his mother. For his professional studies, however, he went to the Moscow Conservatory. His older cousin, Alexander Siloti, a famous and influential pianist in Russia at the time, had recommended to his mother to have young Sergei study piano with Nikolai Zverev at the conservatory. This he did with very remarkable progress and success, but later in his studies he focused more on composition, studying harmony and counterpoint with Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneev.
The most influential composers at that time were the members of the Petersburg-based 'Mighty Five': Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Before their time, music in Russian theatres and concert halls had been dominated by Western European music. The five were, in short, pursuing the goal to establish an authentic national Russian music style: apart from them stood Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a monolithic figure at the time.
By far the greatest part of Rachmaninov's output as a composer was created in Russia before he left the country. He was a great admirer of Chopin's work and took on his idea of the Preludes of Op. 28. However, Rachmaninov did not intend to simply copy their form and structure. Chopin takes the listener in sequential order through the entire circle of fifths, resulting in a series of 24 pieces which are unique in their tonality and character. Although Rachmaninov wrote 24 preludes in total, each in a different key as well, he grouped them in various sets which have no relation to each other.
He first composed his famous C sharp minor Prelude in 1892. It was followed by the group of 10 Preludes Op. 23, which he finished in 1903. The last group, which is recorded here, are the 13 Preludes Op. 32, which Rachmaninov composed in 1910. This was around the time when Scriabin and Rachmaninov - who knew each other well from the Moscow Conservatory, being around the same age - began to differ more and more in their compositional style.
Scriabin developed his revolutionary ideas of tonality and form, while Rachmaninov continued to compose more in a traditional way. He-is considered by many to be 'the last Romantic' and followed the path of the older Tchaikovsky, who supported him considerably as a young composer.
Rachmaninov's Op. 34 is a series of fourteen songs for voice, the last of which is the 'Vocalise'. The entire opus was released in 1912 and the Vocalise Op. 34 No. 14 is composed as a 'song without words'. It is, like the above-mentioned C sharp minor prelude, one of Rachmaninov‘s most popular compositions of all time. There are countless arrangements, not only for voice, but all kinds of settings, among them versions for orchestra, chamber groups, solo instrument with piano accompaniment and also several arrangements for solo piano. The version presented here is an arrangement by Alan Richardson.
After Rachmaninov settled down in the US, he was mainly active as a touring pianist and conductor. He enjoyed enormous success there and some believe Rachmaninov was the greatest pianist of his time. However, his output as a composer had ceased almost completely after he had left his homeland. The two most probable reasons for this are that he was too busy supporting his family by touring and that he was permanently homesick - he could simply not find the calm and mood to compose any longer.
The Variations on a Theme of Corelli Op. 42 is the first work after roughly 15 years away from composing, written in 1931. Also, this is the only work for piano solo Rachmaninov wrote after leaving Russia. At the time of composition, Rachmaninov had settled down in Switzerland, where he again found the leisure to compose.
Although he borrowed the theme for his variations from a violin sonata by Arcangelo Corelli, the title he gave the work is misleading: Corelli himself had varied the baroque theme 'La Folia' in his sonata, which was by no means his original creation. Rachmaninov dedicated the set of these variations to the violinist Fritz Kreisler, with whom he had played and who had apparently introduced him to Corelli's sonata.