Sergey Rachmaninov


Op. 39

About this work

These Etudes are somewhat longer and more challenging than those of Opus 33, even though the poetic aspect of the "Tableaux" is still present. They are without exception extraordinarily difficult.

Flying triplet figurations span the keyboard in the propulsive and driven Etude No. 1 in C minor. There are two powerful climaxes, each preceded by rapidly repeated chords.

In the Etude No. 2 in A minor, Rachmaninov indulges his love of the "Dies Irae" chant, embedding it in the accompaniment of this tragic and powerful piece. A contrasting central section builds to a climax that dissipates in chromatic passages before the reprise of the opening.

The Etude No. 3 in F sharp minor has interesting and unusual metrical groupings of its underlying triplet rhythms. Combined with the fleeting nature of the figuration, this makes it particularly difficult to develop a sense of a regular beat. The result is effective, if somewhat unsettling. A cadenza ends the piece quietly.

A march-like work with shifting meters, the Etude No. 4 in D major had no time signatures, but most editors have inserted them for the performer's convenience. This Etude is primarily a study in repeated notes and staccato chords.

The Etude No. 5 in E flat minor is a somber and grand work, almost too epic in mood for its scale. A powerful theme is played against triplet chords in the main section, while the contrasting middle section features a longing melody accompanied by widespread arpeggios. The build-up to the return of the main theme is highly effective and results in an extraordinarily powerful climax.

The large scale and extreme difficulty of the Etude No. 6 in A minor seem more appropriate to this ambitious set than to Opus 33, where it originally was placed. This exciting and aggressive piece features alternating sections of rapid staccato chords and tricky sixteenth-note figurations.

An elegiac work, the Etude No. 7 in C minor starts out with slow sustained passages followed by a driving, march-like section. The repeated chords of this passage build to a sonorous climax before subsiding for the quiet ending.

The beautiful Etude No. 8 in D minor has an underlying rhythm that makes it sound much like a Barcarolle. The harmonies are lush and romantic, supporting the sparse melodic material, which is constructed primarily of a repeated motive. There is something of a build-up to a subtle and understated climax before the interesting and staccato reprise of the main material.

Much like the final Prélude of Opus 32, the Etude No. 9 in D major uses material from the other pieces of the set. It is primarily a study of chords, ostensibly dramatic but not highly effective and somewhat anticlimactic when the set is performed as a whole.