Prelude in C-sharp Minor
If any piece has gained warhorse status, it is surely the Prelude in C-sharp Minor by Rachmaninov (sometimes known as The Bells of Moscow). The work is not a part of either of the composer’s two sets of preludes (op. 23 and 32) but the second from an early set of five pieces entitled Morceaux de fantaisie, written in 1892 when Rachmaninov was 19. Audiences loved it, and wherever Rachmaninov went he was asked to play it as an encore – so often that he came to hate the piece!
The prelude is in three clear sections (ABA), where the slow, brooding opening A section (marked lento) returns in thunderous form (written on four staves, and marked fff with sffff accents). The middle section, marked agitato, features a groaning chromatic melody line that builds into a frenzy, and at bar 36 we reach a climax with a sequence of descending interlocking chords (a virtuosic passage that is great fun to play and that has a certain wow factor for an audience). The closing chords (from bar 56) require a diminuendo to ppp, and I can’t help but be reminded of the opening of the second piano concerto here. Each of the six harmonies has its own mood, I like to think of a different emoji for each just before I play it!
Some of the requirements for a successful performance include:
- Fertile imagination – the ability to tell a story, or paint a picture in sound
- Control of tone across a vast dynamic range (from ppp to ffff)
- How to play very loudly with excellent tone quality (without banging)
- Managing big jumps across the keyboard that require precision measurement and stamina (in fff) and voicing
- Fancy footwork – control and timing of the sustaining pedal, including fractional and flutter pedalling
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