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Rachmaninoff: Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op.28 (Lugansky, Chochieva, piano)

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Rachmaninoff: Sonata No.1 in D Minor, Op.28 (Lugansky, Chochieva, piano) with MUSICAL ANALYSIS.

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Rachmaninoff: Sonata 1

Rachmaninoff’s First Sonata is one of those pieces that feels like its own musical universe: it’s absolutely vast in scope, with at least 4 epic climaxes and a third movement that contains at least 9 distinct musical ideas, yet every moment of music is so thoroughly integrated with every other that it feels totally self-contained, rigorous, complete. The motif of a falling 5th, for instance, opens each movement, and a single brief idea from Mvt 1’s first real melody becomes the basis for the entire Mvt 2, and a large chunk of Mvt 3 too.

This sonata shows that Rachmaninoff was easily Beethoven’s equal when it came to sheer motivic and structural craft: it’s impossible to explain this with words, so I’d recommend just checking out the analysis above (it was a bit of a pain to put together, since this work is so motivically dense, with barely any filler). The last movement is technically in a kind of sonata form, but it swallows so much of the material from the prior movements that its cyclic function eclipses its expository function. That all the ideas in this movement can be integrated in a way which sounds completely persuasive is a kind of compositional miracle.

There’s also the skill with which Rachmaninoff exploits pianistic sonorities: the heart-pounding, motoric sound of the third movement (22:05!), with its jagged Dies Irae invocations and long “floating” passages, the ecstatic warmth of the second, and the chantlike stillness, eerie drama, and contrapuntal ferocity of the first.

Lugansky: Mvt 1 – 00:00 Mvt 2 – 13:12 Mvt 3 – 21:35

Chochieva: Mvt 1 – 35:40 Mvt 2 – 47:41 Mvt 3 – 55:47

Lugansky is, as always, a perfect fit for Rachmaninoff. There’s not a hint of aggrieved virtuosity in his playing, which has a naturalness and expressive ease that’s very hard to attain in music this complex. He’s also really good a projecting structural detail, which is important in a work this sensitively put-together.

Chochieva has that rarest of gifts in Rachmaninoff – total clarity (listen, for instance, to the opening of Mvt 3). Her Rachmaninoff is taut, almost lean, with sharp attacks and very little indulgence for long rubatos or pedal-generated hazes – which is not to say that she can’t let her sound slip off the leash for some really satisfying moments: 1:03:04, for instance. This sort of stunning playing is probably the only real remedy there is for those who find Rachmaninoff too “notey”.

Musical analysis

MVT I

INTRODUCTION (INT.) 00:00​ – Motif 1 (M1) is introduced – a 5th. Following it is a C#-D cell (M1.2). M1/1.2 repeated thrice.

EXPOSITION 00:35​ – Theme Group 1 (TG1), Theme 1. Containing Motif 2, the RH C-D-F. 00:49​ – Movement into Neapolitan (D-Eb, following from C#-D) 01:01​ – Back into Dm. M1 used extensively 01:07​ – INT. quote 01:17​ – Long transition theme, built around M2. 01:41​ – M2* (modified M2) appears in RH/LH. Initial C-D is reversed in direction, and rhythmic emphasis changed. At 2:00​ three-note descending chromatic motif is heard (M.chr) 02:32​ – Theme Group 2 (TG2), Theme 1. Chant. 03:15​ – TG2, T1, Variant. Less static, upward movement 03:44​ – TG2, T2. Oriental/exotic flavor. 04:01​ – Development Motif (M3) introduced: scale in bass, later presented plainly.

DEVELOPMENT 04:14​ – INT. Cm to Dm 04:32​ – M3 in bass, under diminished chord in RH 04:40​ – INT. Dm to Em 04:56​ – M3 in bass, inverted in RH (diminished chord with gaps filled in) 05:11​ – Development of TG2 T2. LH is ingeniously based on M.chr 05:21​ – M3. Now triplets rise in RH, scale descends in LH 05:32​ – Development of TG2 T2 05:43​ – M4. Rising in LH, falling in RH in augmentation in canon. Elaboration continues. At 6:04​ RH has M4 in contrary motion, with only upper voice augmented 06:14​ – New texture. Based in LH on M1 and M1.2, and increasingly on M3 (now chromatic). 7:02​ modifies texture, with descending scale in RH and quivering bass. 07:32​ – Climax. At 8:04​ M3 is introduced in the LH which carries on relentlessly until 8:15

RECAPITULATION 08:19​ – An incredible moment. TG2 T1, but in Db! Slow drift from Db into D – a move prepared by the C#-D in the INT.; M1.2 used structurally. At 8:46​ INT. lunges from the murk, then again at 8:54​. Most recapitulations have a clear beginning dramatically releasing the tension of the development, but this recapitulation seems not to know what it is at first. 09:06​ – TG1 T1. At 9:22​ TG2 T1 in LH. 09:28​ – Transition theme slowly emerges with M.chr, interspersed with INT. and TG2 T2 at 9:32​. Note M.chr in bass at 9:43​, in rhythmically changed form at 9:38​, etc. 09:50​ – After much-shortened transition, TG2 T1 in Dm, also truncated. Note M.chr emerging in LH at 9:58​ and its regular re-appearances 10:39​ – TG2 T2, now as a huge climax. 11:00​ – M1. Recalling 1:01​. 11:06​ – Transition passage extending M.chr 11:20​ – Resolution into D. Note the emergence at 11:26​ / 11:35​ / 11:43​ of M2* in LH—this will be the theme of the next movement! 11:28​ – TG2 T2. At 11:54​ the closing of TG2 T2 is revealed to be a relative of M3

CODA 12:08​ – TG2 T1 12:36​ – M3 12:51​ – M1.2 + M1, palindrome

MVT II

13:12​ – INTRODUCTION. M1 in LH, as 3 chains of falling 5ths. First in quarter notes, then minims, then quavers. 13:55​ – A SECTION M1 in LH; melody is essentially M2* 15:29​ – B SECTION Note developmental nature and its incessant use of M2*. At 17:17​ the cadenza is drawn from Mvt 1, TG2 T2. 17:29​ – (INTRODUCTION) Note the use of M1 + M1.2 (high descending 5ths at 18:01​++) 18:13​ – A SECTION 19:52​ – CODA. A ecstatic descending scale (M3), gorgeously decorated. Note how the trills oscillate between the interval of a 5th. At 20:36​ M2* reappears a few times before the movement closes.

MVT III

EXPOSITION 21:35​ – Introduction. M1; a 3rd opens into a 5th (A/F, A/E, A/D) [TG1] 21:38​ – Theme 1. At 22:23​, reference to Mvt 1 TG1 T1 22:53​ – M1 in RH, a new motif (M4) in LH. At 23:02​, M1, following by reference to Mvt 1 TG2 T1 in repeated notes [TG2] 23:07​ – Theme 2 = Dies Irae + M3 (in overall structure, and at 23:15​ in LH). Note use in canon 23:43​ – Theme 3. Note M1 at 23:47​ and similar 24:12​ – Theme 4, based on M4 24:47​ – Theme 5 25:29​ – Transition Theme 1 M.chr + (at 25:38​) M1 + M3 + M4. At 25:42​, just M4/Theme 4 25:49​ – Transition Theme 2. At 25:57​, M2* appears, recalling Mvt 1+2 26:20​ – Mvt 1, TG1 T1 26:45​ – Theme 6, based on M2! (F-Gb-Bb, etc). At 27:20​ T2 briefly interrupts, but this time its connection to Mvt 1 is made clear, with references to the opening of Mvt 1’s development in the RH (diminished chord). At 27:26​ T6 returns, and the interruption and return is repeated.

DEVELOPMENT 28:00​ – T2 returns, with M3 in RH. Dazzling feats of thematic integration. At 28:05​ a rhythmic motif from T3 appears while T2 remains and the LH contains M.chr; at 28:12​ the LH draws from T4; at 28:19​ the Dies Irae starts rising in the RH while M4 infuses the LH 28:28​ – Climax. Dies Irae in RH, T3 in LH. At 28:34​ the Dies Irae appears in LH to herald return to T1 28:41​ –

RECAPITULATION. Note how M4 now appears in T1 CODA 33:55​ – T1, with Dies Irae at 33:59​ and similar. At 34:15​ Dies Irae arrives in RH. At 34:28​ it is compressed in toccata-like texture. 34:38​ – Reference to transition theme of Mvt 1 + end of TG2 T1 34:48​ – Climax. M1 in RH, M1.2 in LH. Run at 34:53​ based on M1.2 35:04​ – TG2 T1, now massive 35:22​ – M1 closes the piece, interspersed with 4 repeated Dm chords which recall TG2 T1. The opening figure of the movement closes on a 5th.

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