About this work
This was the last original solo piano work by Rachmaninov and the only one he composed outside Russia. It was written in 1931, the same year the composer boldly denounced the Soviet Union, referring to its leaders as "Communist grave-diggers." Stalin banned Rachmaninov's music as a result, but, recognizing its more appealing and generally less radical nature, rehabilitated it three years later. This work is among the several that were subsequently well received in Moscow.
The Variations on a Theme of Corelli was written in Rachmaninov's less Romantic, more detached style, already heard in his Piano Concerto No. 4 (1926; rev. 1941) and the much earlier Piano Sonata No. 2 (1913). But the Corelli Variations go a step further in their icy, emotional demeanor, for here Rachmaninov displays a cerebral temperament more so than in any other composition in his oeuvre.
The work is cast in three movements, Allegro and Scherzo, Adagio, and Finale. The outer panels are in D minor, and the inner one in D major. The "Corelli" theme is elegant and pristine, sounding quite unlike Rachmaninov's normal style. Thirteen variations follow to fill out the first movement. The first is lively and easily related to the opening theme, the next three are a little slower, with growing complexities. Variations five through seven are faster and inclined toward divulging rhythmic aspects of the theme, though the music remains generally delicate and lean, almost Classical-sounding.
Variations 8 through 13 form the last group in the first movement. The first here is marked Adagio misterioso and establishes a sort of musical haze from which even the livelier variations in this section do not completely break free. The ninth is among the most beguiling, its thematic thread and haunting harmonies imparting a sense of mystery and desolation. Some of the faster music in the succeeding variations is reminiscent of the writing in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
There is a brief Intermezzo following variation 13 and a reprise of the original theme, but now in D major. The two second movement variations, 14 and 15, are slow and sound closest to Rachmaninov's more Romantic style.
The Finale consists of variations 16 through 20 and the coda. The first of these is colorful and lively, the second delicate and somewhat exotic, some of the harmonies tinged with a slightly eastern flavor. The last three variations are the most muscular of all, featuring big, brilliant chords and powerful fortes. In the coda, the mood subsides, its thematic morsels are reminiscent of the slower music in the first movement of the Piano Concerto No. 4.
Curiously, Rachmaninov stipulated in the score that variations 11, 12, and 19 could be omitted, even though their presence is hardly superfluous. After performing this work for several seasons, the composer abandoned it and never played it again. In the end, while this music sounds like Rachmaninov, it is clearly representative of his drier, less Romantic side. A typical performance of the work lasts about 18 to 20 minutes.