Things I love about Rachmaninoff:
His harmonies. Those shifting chords anchored by a pedal. Like, the very end of the c# prelude. Or, the very beginning of the 2nd concerto. Nobody else can do that. And his judicious use of the half-diminished chord. Every harmony moves the music forward, gives it motion aside from rhythm and form. They create expectation. His rhythms. I think his rhythms are pretty much constant, no? Every piece I think of – every prelude, the concertos, the sonatas, the etudes – everything has an underlying rhythm that keeps it moving forward, at least for large sections. Fast and flowing, smooth and rocking, punctuated, big waves, shimmers, there’s always some kind of constant rhythmic division moving things along. Never ever sitting still. Then, there are his just gorgeous melodies. Holy cow. I cannot think of anyone who was as much a melodist as Rachmaninoff. And because of these long, gorgeous, flowing melodies, there’s inevitably some really great counterpoint – nothing fancy, but just another line to keep things moving.
I don’t tend to talk about individual pieces, because I tend to get bogged down in minutiae if I don’t find something really captivating. But here, we have one of my favorite pieces ever. Prelude in D. Op. 23, No. 4. It’s probably the most heartbreaking piece I’ve ever heard, and it’s accomplished so simply! It’s a piece in four phrases – AABA. The A section is simply a beautiful melody, with a flowing accompaniment and a bass supporting it, and harmonized in the most exquisite manner possible. Each successive one gets a little denser, adding another layer of voicing – a twisting melody over top for the second one, and a sparkling countermelody on top for the third. B brings in motivic development – angst, longing, desire, wishing. This prelude reminds me of a line I once read in a Chekhov story – “The beauty inherent in human grief.” Such a human, emotional paradox. It is so beautiful, and yet so sad. And it is beautiful in its sorrow.