Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)Etudes-tableaux, Op. 33:
Bruno Vlahek, piano.
Musicstry Studios. TRT® sound (calibration 2.4). Recorded: Op. 33 May 23, 24 2019, Op. 39 November 28 2019, February 13 2020. Released: May 20 2020. Photo: Jetta Deplazes. Liner notes: Bruno Vlahek. Producer: Mario Martínez. PC17006 ℗ & © 2021 Play Classics.
As the title already reveals, Études-Tableaux are so much more than mere studies. The key word is thus "tableaux“, while the "études“ suggests their high technical demands. The virtuosity serves here as an indispensable vehicle for the expression of visual images and feelings he wanted to address. Although the pieces are intended as “picture studies”, Rachmaninov was never specific about what inspired each piece. He preferred to leave such interpretations to listener and performer, suggesting they should “paint for themselves what it most suggests”. However, he made an exception with five of the "Études-Tableaux“ when, upon Sergei Koussevitzky's recommendation, the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi orchestrated them, and revealed some of the ideas which prompted him to compose them. For example, the E-flat Étude-Tableau (nowadays usually published as No. 6 of Op. 33), is “a scene at a fair”, the A-minor (No. 2 of Op. 39) is "The Sea and the Seagulls“, the other A-minor (No. 6 of Op. 39) was inspired by the tale "Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf“, the C-minor (No. 7 of Op. 39) is a "Funeral March“ (Rachmaninov gives a very detailed explanation especially about this étude in his letter to Respighi), while the last étude resembles an "Oriental march“. Tradition of composing music related to paintings / images is not unfamiliar to the Russian tradition; a well-known example being Mussorgsky's “Pictures at an Exhibition”. It is quite sure that "Ivanovka“ - an estate set deep in the Russian countryside and a haven of tranquility, also gave him a close contact with the nature he found so essential for his creativity.
In an interview that he gave to the American journal “The Etude” in December 1941, Rachmaninov opened up on this subject: “When composing, I find it of great help to have in mind a book just recently read, or a beautiful picture, or a poem. Sometimes a definite story is kept in mind, which I try to convert into tones without disclosing the source of my inspiration. By that I do not mean that I write program music. Since the sources of my inspiration are never revealed, the public must listen to the music absolutely. But I find that musical ideas come to me more easily when I have a definite non-musical subject to describe. This is particularly true in writing a shorter piece for the piano.” And added: “A small piece can become as lasting a masterpiece as a large work. The artist learns, after long experience, that it is more difficult to be simple than to be complicated.”
My personal view on the études from the Op. 33 is as if they were small medallions or brief flashes of compressed emotions, inspired by various stimuli from the exterior world. On the other hands I see those of Op. 39 more as poems whereby their inspiration comes from the inner world, thus containing a step further into the more profound state of mind. I find that in each of the pieces from the Opus 33 Rachmaninov presents one of the elements which characterize his work and heritage in general. The opening piece is a rather formal march which shows a slight inclination towards grotesque, serving at the same time as an introduction to the "Dies irae“ motif - one of the Rachmaninov's typical elements, related to his obsession with death and morbid curiosity. Beside certain anxiety, I could recall a central Asian flavour in the étude no. 2, as if it arrived from one of the Borodin's musical landscapes, or reminding us of Rachmaninov's Tatar ancestry. It finds peace in the following piece in which Rachmaninov's talent for melody shows itself at its best. Étude n. 4 brings out the folklore elements and it is hard not to imagine peasant's bulky dancing; heavily impregnated with polyphonic layers – another typical element of Rachmaninov's writing. The following piece brings Rachmaninov's "veloce“ - style which occurs as a vision, somewhat of a life that flashes before one's eyes. A seldom expression of exuberance is present in the energetic and uplifting piece that follows. Being one of only two major key études from the Op. 33, it certainly suggests the colours, sounds and excitement of a fun fair. I find as an interesting detail the fact that it shares the same E flat-major key as the "Market of Limoges“ by Mussorgsky – perhaps a (non)conscious tribute to the Russian music from the past. The G-minor étude comes as an introspective remembrance with dominant vocal line echoing a church chant, and paying tribute to Chopin – a composer Rachmaninov held dear to his heart (and fingers). A wrestle between Light and Darkness and the sound of bells as a constant fascination of the composer mark the final piece of the Op. 33. Rachmaninov walks on the edge here, defying the limits of the Good and the Evil. With strong resonances of the bass register and Scriabinesque spirit, this piece could be considered as an anticipation of the whole Opus 39. The question remains open, as if saying "to be continued“…
There is a strong feeling of nostalgia present in the pieces of the Opus 39, even more than in the previous set. The colours of Opus 39 are darker, the sounds are heavier and thicker. Gestures are broader, phrases longer and more exhausting. What was a stream in the Op. 33, here becomes a river. The images are more complex. It is a journey of a soul, an inner journey, represented through different landscapes and experiences. The significant fact is that this was the last work to be written before leaving his homeland forever. Russia will stay as a metaphor of longing for something that cannot be reversed. Not only for a land, but also for a time. However, Rachmaninov's music is so authentic that it is hard to imagine any other possible description of the places or emotions mentioned here, neither in the past nor in the future. The journey starts dramatically, "in medias res“, with a tempestuous piece to whose technical demands the title "étude“ fits perfectly. A distant flow continues, opening space to a large-scale "Dies irae“ build-up that leads to wavy perturbations. Constant discreet changes of emotions through subtle harmonic shading are present in the third piece, while the fourth serves somewhat as a "Scherzo“. There are light dramatic bells, recalling the pre-Christmas chill and winter time reminiscence. The Scriabinesque struggle announced in Op. 33 N. 8 gets a sort of sequel in the following piece. There are changes between major and minor harmonies again, as well as strong chords and vibrations. But this time the sung phrases are much longer and passionate. It is a heavily climactic music, sensual and irresistible; requiring the complete devotion and strip-off. While the complexness of the No. 6 fits better to the Op. 39, the compact idea and technical straightforwardness reveal that it belonged originally to the first set of études. Rachmaninov shows here the perfidious and fantastical side of his character. After all, each journey contains a danger of meeting a wolf… The first part of the perhaps most unique étude of all is somewhat related to the opening part of the Op. 33 N. 3. It changes the direction however and continues building up "per aspera ad astra“ - in sense of reaching the divine glory, disappearing at the very end as if nothing happened. At its peak moment, the piano is literally being converted to the great cathedral bells. While its Op. 33 counterpart is the placid human version, this one belongs to the God. Final speculating thoughts before reaching the end of the journey are being exposed in the penultimate autumn-like piece, reminding us that the real beauty is perhaps in the journey itself. The only major key of whole Op. 39 cycle has been reserved for the very last piece. The circle is being closed by another march; a glorious and triumphant one, although not really a happy one. There is a smile on the face, yet it stays pretty reserved until very few last lines. It is a return (home or not?), the fanfare and the bells are heard again, as well as the folk dance music. A final statement after long and agitated experiences.
Pianist and composer Bruno Vlahek has distinguished himself as one of the most prominent and versatile musicians of his generation, being praised by the critics for his "fantastic virtuosity" and "depth of musical thought that bewitches the audience".
Born 1986 in Zagreb (Croatia), it was there that he received first piano lessons at the Pavao Markovac Music School with Mara Bolfek at the age of 9. Only two years later, he already won the 1st prize at the Pinerolo International Piano Competition in Italy and became subsequently a two-time absolute winner at his native country’s national competitions in Dubrovnik.
He graduated as one of the youngest students in history of the Zagreb Music Academy with Vladimir Krpan, obtained a soloist diploma at the Haute École de Musique in Lausanne with Jean-François Antonioli and received his master’s degree with Vassily Lobanov at the Hochschule für Musik Köln, where he also studied composition and improvisation. From 2010-13 he studied with legendary Russian pianist and pedagogue Dmitri Bashkirov at the Queen Sofía College of Music in Madrid. Futher great impact on his pianism left the contacts he had with artists such as Einar Steen-Nøkleberg, Jean-Bernard Pommier, Menahem Pressler, Ferenc Rados, Masaaki Suzuki and Gábor Takács-Nagy.
Bruno Vlahek is winner of highest prizes of many prestigious piano competition, such as those of Paris, Shanghai, Lleida or Lyon. At the same time, as a composer, he was awarded at the International Composition Competitions "Cristóbal Halffter" in Spain, at the Music Biennale Zagreb and "Fidelio" Competition; received a discographic award "Porin" and "Stjepan Šulek Award" for the best classical composition.
In his native country he received a title of the Young Musician of The Year, awarded by the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra and subsequently received the Swiss prize "Paderewski", Yamaha Music Foundation of Europe’s Award, Pnina Salzman Memorial Award in Israel and Arists on Globe Award. For his achievements he was awarded by the Honorary Diploma from the hands of Her Majesty Queen Sofia of Spain.
He regularly appears as a recitalist and soloist with orchestras in Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, Russia and Middle East - in venues such as Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona, Auditorio Nacional de Música in Madrid, Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, Mozarteum Salzburg, Dubai Opera, St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, Moscow’s Kremlin, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Shanghai Concert Hall or Seoul Arts Centre, as well as at the festivals of Dubrovnik, Bolzano, Moscow, Vienna, Palma de Mallorca, Dar-es-Salaam or Verbier.
His performances were broadcasted on TV and radio stations such as British BBC 3, Dutch NPO Radio 4, Spanish RTVE and Catalunya Ràdio, or Radio Suisse Romande.
He collaborated with conductors and chamber music partners such as Leopold Hager, Milan Horvat, Jaime Martín, Pascal Rophé, Philippe Muller, David Danzmayr, Alexander Ghindin, Cyprien Katsaris and Viktor Tretyakov. He performs with great success with his wife Dubravka Vukalovic as D&B Piano Duo, with whom he became a prizewinner of the International Piano Duo Competition in Monte-Carlo.
He has written numerous orchestral, chamber, solo and choral works of various genres which have been performed on five continents in cities such as New York, Chicago, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Cambridge, Lisbon, Prague, Salzburg, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Seoul or Singapore, and at the ISCM’s World New Music Days in Sydney (Australia).