Rachmaninov’ études – by Zoltán Kocsis

Composed in 1911 and 1916 (Op. 33 and Op. 39,respectively), the études-tableaux were highly successful and were popular repertoire pieces of celebrated pianists. True to its name, the set consists of painterly descriptions, motivated accounts of experiences, moving psychological portraits, rather than mere études. And as such, they lend themselves well to orchestration. Unsurprisingly, Respighi’s cycle of five pieces stood the test of time and when in 2003 I first presented them to the Hungarian audiences, I secretly envied the brilliant orchestrator for having a free hand to pick the most characteristic and effective pieces of the two sets. Perhaps subconsciously it was then that I decided to follow suite and orchestrate a few études-tableaux.Personally, I was more inspired by the lesser known ones; those that were rarely performed in their original form.When comparing the sound ideals of Rachmaninov and Respighi, it is striking just how much importance the Italian master attaches to appearances and how much more so than the composerhe likes to polish his style in his Latin way. Naturally I endeavoured to follow Rachmaninov’s orchestration practice that is based more on the composer’s unique treatment of the orchestra than on customary pianistic architecture. As much as Rachmaninov’s piano works and orchestral works overlap, there is a striking difference. There are many reasons for that, including the Russian composer’s larger-than-average hand size and his activity as a conductor. Consequently, my job was considerably more challenging than expected. The job of choosing a title, however, was no more difficult than Respighi’s had been.
The composer revoked the D-minor Étude (Op. 33 No. 5) shortly before publication, together with two other pieces of the much-anticipated set, and the manuscript was not found and published in Moscow until after Rachmaninov’s death. It is not known why he decided to cancel publication. The most likely reason is because he was displeased with his work. Whether or not he was right is up to the listener to decide. While working on the orchestration I had Alexei Tolstoy’s charming hero Buratino in mind, whose adventures the étude tells in miniature form. The other pieces are equally evocative. The C-minor Étude (Op. 39 No. 1) is thought to have been inspired by Rachmaninov’s favourite Symbolist German painter Arnold Böcklin’sIn the Play of the Waves (Spiel der Wellen), a painting depicting a mythological scene with nymphs and satires. However, to my mind the music is considerably more “tempestuous” than the painting would suggest.