June 14, 2007


Rachmaninoff: Preludes (complete). Eldar Nebolsin, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

Joplin: Piano Rags, Volume 2. Benjamin Loeb, piano. Naxos. $8.99.

      The turn of the 20th century took pianists and composers for the piano in tremendously varied directions. Rachmaninoff, one of the great classical piano virtuosi of his time, looked back to Bach – in a sense – in writing a set of 24 Preludes in all the major and minor keys. But Rachmaninoff made the endeavor very much his own, in a multiplicity of ways. Instead of writing a new version of The Well-Tempered Clavier, Rachmaninoff created a series of brief tone poems; instead of alternating major and minor keys throughout, he used that approach sometimes, but at others juxtaposed pieces that he thought would sound well in sequence; instead of focusing on the instrument (Bach’s work was intended to show that a particular tuning system allowed composers to write good-sounding works in all keys), Rachmaninoff focused on the performer. The first and most famous of the Preludes, in C-sharp minor, was not even written to be part of a group of 24: it is the second of five Morceaux de fantaisie, op. 3, and the only Prelude in that set. There followed 10 Preludes, op. 23, and then 13 more, Op. 32.

      Eldar Nebolsin’s prodigious technique gives these miniature tone poems their full due. All Rachmaninoff’s Preludes are dramatically conceived, and Nebolsin lets their full theatricality flourish. From the very strong opening chords of the famous C-sharp minor, to the quiet melancholy of the F-sharp minor, to the grand gestures of the B-flat major, and on throughout the works, Nebolsin shows that he has technique and understanding to spare. Among the highlights are the almost Bach-like simplicity of the start of the D major, the oddly inflected little G minor march (with a lyrical middle section reminiscent of the Second Piano Concerto), the ominous-sounding E-flat minor, the quiet and gentle G-flat major, the ebullient C major (shortest of all), the fairy-tale-like atmosphere of the G-sharp minor, and the complexity of the concluding D-flat major – whose solemn introduction leads to a complex rhapsody-like Allegro that ends with resounding chords. The apparent ease with which Nebolsin plays this difficult music allows the structure and emotional punch of the individual works – and of the Preludes as a whole – to come through with impressive clarity.

      Clarity was the whole point of the very different pianism of Scott Joplin, whose famed ragtime tunes date to the same era as Rachmaninoff’s Preludes. But where Rachmaninoff featured prodigiously difficult pieces with highly varied rhythmic structures, Joplin focused on – and perfected – a simple melodic structure through which he managed to convey a surprising amount of emotion. Benjamin Loeb, pianist for the second volume of Naxos’ Joplin series (the first volume was played by Alexander Peskanov), takes to heart Joplin’s admonition that ragtime should never be played fast. As a result, the more heartfelt among the 16 works here – such as Eugenia, Gladiolus, Weeping Willow, Magnetic Rag and Joplin’s last piano work, Reflection Rag: Syncopated Musings – come through with great tenderness and expressiveness. In the livelier works, such as Swipesey and Peacherine, it would have been nice if Loeb had cut loose a bit more. But he does do a fine job with Rag-Time Dance, which opens the CD, and Stoptime Rag, which closes it – both of which require him to stamp his feet while playing. The CD is a bit of a hodgepodge, arranged neither chronologically nor by the moods of the pieces. But that will not matter to most listeners, who will simply enjoy the clever melodies and attractive accompaniments with which Joplin created such easy-to-listen-to music. Joplin, after all, wrote within a rigid framework – almost always a two-step, although the delightful Rosebud March is in 6/8 time – and in making it so fresh and fancy, made it thoroughly his own.

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